July 29, 2019

DJ Dark Flow's Masterpiece Crate #2: Alice In Chains - Dirt


If Nirvana created the perfect storm for grunge to come into the fold with their worldwide hit, Nevermind, then Alice In Chains took the genre a giant leap further, with their second full-length album, Dirt. Like Nirvana, Alice In Chains also came into their own after recording a gritty debut, punk-grunge album, Facelift in 1990, before the release of this grunge-metal masterpiece. Facelift displayed some true potential for the band since they produced some excellent hit songs which have just as much staying power today as some of Dirt's best songs, such as Man in the Box, Bleed the Freak, and Sea of Sorrow. These singles were also a big indicator that lead singer Layne Staley's talents were a grade above those of Kurt Cobain's, as his vocal cords could easily handle an excessively powerful release from within all the while maintaining his delicate flutter as he sang. It seemed only a matter of time then, after Nevermind, that Alice In Chains would continue to top themselves after Facelift, and they most certainly did with what is undisputedly the strongest album in the group's career.

Fronted by Layne, who shared songwriting duties with lead guitarist Jerry Cantrell, Alice In Chains benefited from their combined effort of Layne's powerful and stunning vocal range and Jerry's personal life struggles personified through the music. Dirt covers many themes in life such as pain, anger, addiction, toxic relationships, war, death, heartbreak, and depression. As it stands as an album that contains so many of these heavy topics, Dirt, while classified as grunge or alternative rock, was the heaviest and darkest offering of the genre at that time, and oftentimes turned more heavy metal than grunge, as can be heard in their brutal and tortured opening track, Them Bones. Alice In Chains doesn't hold back with this one, with chilling cries of agony and heavy metal guitar riffs chugging through the track. Written by Cantrell and executed so well by Staley and company, this is the reason their combined force was so strong and compelling, and they address the existential threat of our mortality right away here in this opener as Layne sings, "I believe them bones are me, some say we're born into the grave, I feel so alone, gonna end up a big 'ole pile a them bones."

Dam That River doesn't let the energy die either, as it starts up another metal rock riff and moves the album forward with another heavy-hearted tune, laced with imagery of violence and anger, as Layne cries out, "Oh, you couldn't dam that river, and maybe I don't give a damn anyway, so you couldn't dam that river, and it washed me so far away." Rain When I Die caps off this opening trio of tracks with dark, dense motifs and incredible singing by Layne, before Dirt cuts back into one of the strongest songs on the album, Down in a Hole. Written by Jerry, this powerful rock ballad was his ode to his then-girlfriend, Courtney Clarke. The eventual falling apart and heartbreak that ensued from his life's choice of being in a rock band and touring created a song that he felt hit him the hardest. The nature of their lifestyles and touring schedules meant he couldn't hold on to his longtime love, and it left him feeling "down in a hole." It's the first heartfelt piece of music to come out of Dirt and Layne treats the material delicately and beautifully as he sings on Jerry's behalf, "Down in a hole and I don't know if I can be saved, see my heart I decorate it like a grave."

Sickman trades marching heavy metal riffs for brooding sludge and doom metal as it moves from verse to chorus and back again, and Layne sings about the struggles of living in the sick world that he's created for himself and having no control in life. It's also a commentary about the world at large, as Layne groans, "I can feel the wheel but I can't steer, when my thoughts become my biggest fear, ah, what's the difference I'll die, oh, in this sick world of mine." The pure grunge-rock grace of Alice In Chains is felt most on the following song, the most memorable track of their career thus far, Rooster. A watery guitar slowly strums and repeats as a gospel-like choir croons an iconic melody that can only be known as the precursor for one of Layne's best performances yet, his storied rendition of Jerry's own personal fears of losing his father in the Vietnam war. The music video dives deeper than the music, as Jerry's own father is interviewed about his experience of being drafted into the army and surviving the harrowing and horrifying life experience. It makes for a haunting and inescapable piece of grunge-rock history that has been burned into the minds of listeners for generations.

After Rooster comes to a finish, the first half of the record gives way to an even more honest, insightful, and punishing set of tracks, with a trio of heavy, yet emotional songs: Junkhead, the title track Dirt, and Godsmack. Junkhead was Layne's willingness to admit his rampant and tormented drug use, an addiction which plagued him for the rest of his short life. It is full of desperation and self-reflection, as Layne comes to terms with his afflictions and tries to place listeners into the mind of a user, as he sings, "You can't understand a user's mind, but try with your books and degrees, if you let yourself go and opened your mind, I'll bet you'd be doing like me and it ain't so bad." Layne cuts back into a fully-unrepenting chorus as he sings, "What's my drug of choice? Well, what have you got? I don't go broke, and I do it a lot, said I do it a lot." It's one of Layne's most straight-forward and honest songs about his addiction, and although he sings with an air of calm, his screaming spirit can be heard just beneath the surface. Dirt pulls the curtains back at a relationship that's gone to sh*t, for lack of a better term. His focus on what it's like to be made to feel like dirt by another person is full of doom and gloom, as he describes the experience of feeling buried alive by the person he loves, and ultimately forces him to retreat inward. Godsmack doesn't lighten the load much, but it does feel like a breath of fresh air for that matter, as Jerry and company pick up the tempo from the previous two tracks and Layne experiments with a fluttering vocal stutter, singing, "Don't you know that none are blind, to the lie, and you think I don't find what you hide? What in God's name have you done? Stick your arm for some real fun." He later finishes the song with a penetrating line, "So your sickness weighs a ton, and God's name is smack for some," effectively drawing the parallel to people's addictions and feeling the presence of God as being the most high.

The final four songs open with a track sometimes left untitled, sometimes listed as Intro, or Iron Gland, and it's a short but dark, menacing signal that Alice In Chains is far from over. Hate to Feel gives listeners a look at the anger buried deep inside Layne, as he is the sole songwriter credited here. He sings in the chorus, "All this time I swore I'd never be like my old man, what the hey it's time to face exactly who I am." Angry Chair, one of the five singles, was Layne's only other solo songwriting credit. It's the penultimate track on the record and makes heavy metal blows with guitars and drums as Layne howls his deepest insecurities, "Loneliness is not a phase, field of pain is where I graze, serenity is far away, saw my reflection and cried, so little hope that I died, oh, feed me your lies, open wide, weight of my heart, not the size, oh." His pain is almost immediately disregarded in a half-hearted dismissal of a chorus, "I don't mind, yeah, I don't mind." The epic final track is Layne and Jerry's ultimate send-off for Dirt, which was never repeated again with their few final releases that remained, with Would?. Layne takes his vocals to the full range that he is capable of, and with Jerry's writing and vocal turns on the verses, they make a killing, as they barrel towards the final message that they have, and Layne unleashes an unforgettable grunge vocal performance in the chorus. Written for Jerry's late friend Andrew Wood, lead singer of Seattle alternative grunge band Mother Love Bone, who passed in 1990 from a heroin overdose, Jerry had a heavy heart from the matter, and knowing Layne's repeated drug use, it is a completely haunting track to hear knowing full well where Layne was heading. Layne sings, "Into the flood again, same old trip it was back then, so I made a big mistake, try to see it once my way."

It cannot be overstated how much Dirt's music was attributed to Jerry Cantrell's personal life experiences and songwriting talents. His writing was in effect taken to a place he could never get to with the addition of Layne Staley to help the band reach incredible heights in the first half of their career. While Jerry is still alive and well with this latter half iteration of Alice In Chains, it will never be the same without the awe-inspiring vocal powers of Layne, and there's no other album that they recorded during Layne's life where their collaboration was as perfect as it is here in Dirt. It's another masterpiece after Nevermind, and its themes took grunge and alternative to a very dark corner of life, all while maintaining its heart and keeping its core true to the struggles that afflicted its two leading songwriters.

Recommended Tracks: Down In A Hole, Rooster, Would?