Review Summary: Addicted, angry and depressed, Alice in Chains deliver a landmark grunge and metal album.
I think I state the obvious when I say that Layne Staley did not live a happy life. He may not have been the fame-hating, suicidal junkie that Kurt Cobain was, but his thirty-four years of life were maligned with drug abuse and depression. When he died in 2002 from an overdose, he left behind a legacy as one of the greatest vocalists of the grunge era, perhaps even the greatest, and a passion for expressing his depression with his dreary vocals. Now, Layne wasn’t the only member of the Chains that was struggling at this time; Drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Starr were both fighting alcohol addictions, and Jerry Cantrell was struggling with depression following the deaths of his mother and Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood, whom he was a close friend with. Although Staley was an excellent vocalist and songwriter, Alice would not be where they are today without Cantrell, who wrote and co-wrote many of the band’s songs, including some of their biggest hits. Cantrell’s masterful guitar work and harmonization with Staley are some of the many highlights of their early career.
, the band’s second album, was released in November of 1992, about a year after Nirvana’s Nevermind
introduced the world to grunge. It shot up to #6 on the Billboard 200 album chart, which is surprising due to its un-radio friendly subject matters. Yet, they probably found an audience because of how goddamn brutally honest Staley was when singing these songs. In every one of the album’s thirteen tracks, Staley’s pain and suffering comes across as genuine, and you can truly feel the anger and sadness that he’s going through.
is home to many of the band’s best songs and many of the band’s biggest hits. Opener
“Them Bones” begins with Staley’s repeated cries of “Ah!”, and soon turns into a song about how he’s going to die one day, and “end up a big ‘ol pile of them bones”. “Dam That River” follows, and is one of the fastest songs on the album, and ends up discussing probably the least depressing subject matter in the entire album. The song was written by Cantrell after a fight with drummer Sean Kinney, who broke a coffee table over his head.
As the album goes on, everything becomes darker and darker. “Rain When I Die” is the absolute highlight of the album, featuring a grand chorus in which Staley croons, “Did she call my name" I think it’s gonna rain when I die!” By dragging out the words ‘name’ and ‘rain’, the pain in his vocals become so much more evident. The verses are also enticing due to the wonderful harmonization between Staley and Cantrell. “Rain When I Die” is the best song on this album, and one of the best songs in the band’s career.
Moving deeper into the album, the guitar riffs become heavier, the lyrics get darker, the pain becomes more prevalent, and Staley’s vocals become more strained and honest. Songs like “Junkhead” or “Sickman” are solely about his drug addiction, and because of this, the lyrics and vocals are desperate as ***. The former, with lines like “We are an elite race of our own, the stoners, junkies and freaks”, and “What’s my drug of choice" I don’t go broke, I do it a lot”, is a song that expresses how Staley knows that drugs are gonna kill him, but he’s still likes to use them. “Down in a Hole”, the ballad of the album, almost didn’t even make it because Cantrell feared the track was too soft and was scared to present it to the band. Oddly enough, it’s one of the most depressing ballads I’ve ever heard. However, “Dirt”, the album’s title track, presents a dark subject matter with dark, grinding riffs. With lyrics written by Staley such as “I want you to kill me, And dig me under, I wanna live no more” and “I want to taste dirty, a stinging pistol, In my mouth, on my tongue” , “Dirt” paints a morbid image of suicide and wanting to die.
Alice in Chains were easily the most metal-influenced out of all of the grunge bands, and Dirt
shows this off in many of its songs. Many of the riffs in the album’s latter half are dark, grinding, and vicious. By the time we get to the closer, “Would"”, it ends up being one of the lighter songs on the album, due to its more polished sound and more mainstream hook. It’s still excellent, though, with its infectious chorus and Staley cries of, “Into the flood again, same old trip it was back then” being the song’s highlights. He and Cantrell still harmonize magnificently in the verses, and the ending where Staley yells, “If I would, could you"” all make “Would"” an excellent closer to a classic album.
is fueled by depression, addiction, and anger. From the tribute to his veteran father “Rooster” to the dark, grinding “Hate to Feel”, the album stays consistent through and through. Dirt
is the landmark album of the 90s grunge scene, embodying everything that the genre was about. While Nirvana arguably cleaned up their sound on Nevermind
, Alice in Chains’ breakthrough remained dark and deep. Even though William DuVall is a great lead singer, he’ll never match up to the vocal god that was Staley, who had a knack for expressing his pain and depression in such an honest way. It’s the combined efforts of Staley and Cantrell, two of the greatest songwriters of the 90s, that truly make Dirt
what it is: a thirteen-track, brutally honest journey through drugs, melancholy and emotion.