Essential albums: Alice In Chains, “Dirt”

Let me start this review by telling you two things:

1) In 1993, Alice In Chains’ “Dirt” was the most important album in the world to me.

2) After 1993, about 12 years passed before I was able to listen to “Dirt” again.

I won’t bore you with a bunch of personal history (we’re here to talk about metal, not blather about our freakin’ feelings, for crying out loud), but it’s not an exaggeration to say that “Dirt” kept me alive and sane at a time when staying alive wasn’t a high priority and being sane didn’t seem worth the bother. It was a dark time and one of the things that pulled me through it was “Dirt.” I’m indebted.

Apparently, the guys in Alice In Chains felt much the same way. How else can anyone explain how the band created such a beautiful, painful, raging and thoroughly cathartic piece of art?

“Dirt” was the band’s sophomore full-length album. While their 1990 major label debut, “Facelift,” had some excellent songs (“We Die Young,” “I Can’t Remember,” “It Ain’t Like That,” “Real Thing” and, to a lesser extent, “Man in the Box”), the rest of the album was either forgettable or mediocre. It was the five-song, mostly acoustic and haunting EP “Sap” that showed AIC had more up their sleeve than shock value and possessed the potential to be more than just a nihilistic Soundgarden.

“Dirt” and “Sap” were released eight months apart in 1992 – “Sap” in February and “Dirt” in October. The albums have little in common sonically – “Sap” is mellow while “Dirt” shrieks almost from the first note to the last – but there’s a deep melancholy in both albums that is hard to miss. Both are steeped in depression, but “Dirt” is a quiet meditation while “Dirt” is scream therapy.

Vocalist Layne Staley and guitarist Jerry Cantrell, the band’s main songwriters, matured considerably as artists in the years between “Facelift” and “Dirt.” The juvenile horror stories that littered “Facelift,” such as “Love Hate Love” and “Confusion” are gone. Also, nothing on “Dirt” feels like filler; even the hallucinatory, whacked-out, one-minute blast of “Iron Gland” feels absolutely right and necessary. Not a note is wasted.

“Them Bones” sets the tone, with an unrelenting, off-kilter riff. “Off-kilter” is an apt musical description for “Dirt;” the songs are structured on minor chords and odd time-signatures and Staley and Cantrell’s vocal harmonies are often beautiful yet jagged. “Them Bones” ratchets up the tension with Cantrell’s climbing riff – a riff that marches up to the musical cliff without providing a satisfying climax. The song ends abruptly, leaving the listener hanging in midair. Can I be blunt? It’s f***ked up s**t.

“Dam The River” could almost be normal, except that Cantrell’s guitar keeps buzzing and launching grace notes that keep the whole song off-balance. “Rain When I Die” is the sound of a binge gone bad, or a habit that’s turning quickly into a life-destroying addiction. Yes, it’s no shocker or secret that most of what Staley penned for “Dirt” was about his soon-to-be-totally debilitating drug addiction and there’s a pain and roar of self-hate here that’s frightening and yet so candid and honest that it’s refreshing. Remember, this was 1992 – “emo” (which, to me, seems like nothing more than some haircut kid crying about his girlfriend) – hadn’t been invented, so hearing a man actually talk about having a real, freakin’ emotion was nothing less than a revelation. Back then, kids, men weren’t allowed to have emotions – or at least they weren’t allowed to talk about them.

“Down in a Hole” is a suicide note written years in advance and “Sickman” is a trip in an ambulance after the overdose. “Rooster” is the only song that strays from the theme. A song about Cantrell’s father’s time in Vietnam, it’s heartfelt without being congratulatory or full of heroism or honor. “Rooster” is a song about survival, which makes it unique in an album otherwise committed to death.

“Junkhead” may seem like a celebration of drug addiction, but “self-justification” is probably a better description. “If you’d let yourself go and open your mind, I bet you’d be doing like me and it ain’t so bad,” Staley sings – but it’s obvious even he doesn’t believe it. “Junkhead” is Staley whistling, unconvincingly, past the grave yard he knows is about to claim him. To call “Junkhead” sad is simply not adequate. It’s heartbreaking.

“Dirt” burns with an acid hallucination of a riff and Staley spits out the words like a man in a cold fury. Of course, Staley’s rage is all self-directed. The song bites into your stomach. Although it was never one of the band’s hits, “Dirt” is the band’s (and album’s) masterpiece. Even today, it’s a song that cuts like broken glass.

“Godsmack,” while hardly cheery, at least is a bit more up-tempo and “Iron Gland” is a mad carnival of rushing manic feeling. It doesn’t last, though. It can’t. The band flies into a twisted dirge, with spastic surges, on “Hate To Feel.” There’s a doom metal vibe on “Hate To Feel.” Simply put, this song scares the bejeezus out of me every freakin’ time.

“Angry Chair” somehow almost became a hit, or at least it got a decent amount of radio play. How that happened is quite beyond me; it’s hard to imagine a song with such real self-loathing ever being played on rock radio today (these days, you’re only allowed to be angry at your parents on the radio – thanks for that, Disturbed, you cheap hacks). I’ve tried and tried to think of an adjective to describe “Angry Chair,” but the best I can do is this: “Angry Chair” is the sound of hell coming down. It’s “brutal” in a way the angriest death metal band never achieves. “Angry Chair” is Staley turning himself inside out. It’s genius, kids. It’s gawddamm bloody horrific genius.

“Would?” is almost hopeful after “Angry Chair,” but only almost. The vocal duets are gorgeous and the chorus always blows me away. It’s just the right end.

You know the rest of the story. After “Dirt,” the band recorded another long EP (“Jar of Flies”) and one more full-length album (the self-titled “Alice in Chains”) in the studio with Staley on vocals. When Staley died of drug overdose, the news felt almost expected, a letter delayed but arriving at last.

Last year, the band returned with a new album (“Black Gives Way to Blue”) and co-vocalist/guitarist William DuVall, who shares mic duties with Cantrell. The album is solid and well-done and the band’s new incarnation is refreshing. But while I’m looking forward to hearing more albums from Alice In Chains, I can’t imagine any new album having quite the same impact at “Dirt.” It’s the album for which the band will be remembered.


1 Comment

  1. […] from no ordinary made-up hair group. I checked the liner notes and confirmed that besides bassist Mike Starr — who I thought looked a lot like Sara Gilbert as Darlene in the then-popular TV show Roseanne […]

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