Review Summary: A masterpiece built on personal demons and private hells.
Last month, I published one of the hardest poems I’ve ever had to pen. For me, writing a new piece always starts with one difficult question: “how much do I want to reveal to the reader and how much do I want to leave up to interpretation?” From the time my alcoholism started to the time it (thankfully) ended, I always left a few breadcrumbs here and there about the subject in my poetry. It’s as if I wanted to address the problem while skirting around it at the same time; perhaps it was a mechanism to maintain some subtlety in my writing, or perhaps I was unwilling to confront the issue directly. Yet it was always there, and no amount of avoiding it would have changed the fact that I’d need to confront it directly someday. As it turns out, 2022 was that someday; I wrote everything that needed to be spelled out to the letter, and it was gut wrenching. What finally inspired me to face the whole ordeal head-on? Dirt
. Alice in Chains’ masterpiece served - and still serves - as proof that being open and revealing about personal conflict can be the best form of therapy in one’s darkest moments.
It seems as though Layne Staley never had a problem expressing such frankness with his lyrics and vocals. One listen to Dirt
reveals a man constantly spilling his guts and bleeding out on record, as if he had nothing to lose any time he approached the mic. Very few albums are less open to interpretation than this one, and that’s what makes it one of the best records of its era; Nevermind
might have been the flagship album of the grunge movement, but nothing expressed the subculture’s dark pathos or downcast nature quite like Dirt
. Even the songs that aren’t directly related to Staley’s drug abuse, such as Jerry’s Cantrell’s war-themed “Rooster” or the tribute to early grunge icon Andrew Wood that is “Would?”, are delivered with the same brutal honesty and manage to stay consistent with the album’s overall theme: personal demons. Dirt
has nothing to celebrate and no one to congratulate, instead focusing on how horrifying our real-life hells can be if we let them consume us. In the case of some of these songs, the outcome of these ordeals is even more harrowing - especially on “Junkhead”, in which our narrator finally succumbs to his addiction altogether and says “it ain’t so bad”.
Of course, a big part of Dirt
’s twisted magic is that the music matches the subject matter so well. Any of the 80s influence that was found on Facelift
has been completely wiped away in favor of a sludgy metallic murk, perfectly conveying the desert burial on the album cover. While there are a few songs that run at a quicker pace - the off-kilter groove of “Them Bones”, the punkish tempo of “Dam That River”, etc. - their chunky riffs and oppressive atmosphere ensure that they aren’t out of place with the rest of the tracklist. As for the slower tunes, many of them approach straight-up doom metal territory: “Junkhead”, “Hate to Feel” and the title track trudge along at a snail’s pace as they leave the listener enveloped in a thick haze of despair and dread. All of this perfectly supplements the messages Alice in Chains wanted to deliver on Dirt
, as well as making them one of the only grunge bands to have crossover appeal with the metal crowd. More importantly, Dirt
saw the full mastery of one of Alice in Chains’ biggest trademarks: the incredible vocal harmonies between Cantrell and Staley. These were on Facelift
as well, but Dirt
is where they really started to shine; songs like “Down in a Hole”, “Sickman”, and “Hate to Feel” simply wouldn’t have the same impact without them, especially the former and its soft, sorrowful verses.
In hindsight, however, the most depressing aspect of Dirt
- much like the self-titled followup - was how prophetic it was. Staley knew he was digging his grave prematurely with every needle, and the lyrics of Alice in Chains’ 90s output make this distressingly clear. Yet it can’t be denied that he had one of the most unique and incredible voices of that entire era of rock; the way he juggled technical ability, emotion, and - as stated before - brutal honesty was only matched by a small handful of other artists at the time. Just watch the live performance of “Love Hate Love” at The Moore and it becomes clear just how much of a loss the rock world endured in 2002 with Staley’s passing. I like to see Dirt
as the American grunge equivalent of Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible
, in the sense that the album is every bit as much a tortured character portrait as it is a record. Cantrell, Sean Kinney, and Mike Starr might have been involved in the writing of Dirt
(though the latter two only contributed to one song), but this really feels like Staley’s record first and foremost. It also remains his finest hour, serving as a foreboding message to those with personal demons: don’t let them drag you down and destroy you, or else you’ll find yourself in the grave before you can pull yourself back out.
~R.I.P. Layne Staley 1967-2002~