On September 29, 1992, "Alice in Chains" released its second album "Dirt".
This is one of the greatest albums of the 90s and one of the ultimate statements of modern music.
This album is a tragedy of contrasts between the creator and the listener. A musical paradise wrought in the fire of the artist's inner hell, a whole of wholeness formed from the shards of the writers' souls, a heavenly beauty made up of thousands of scars.
This is a painful and creepy document that is a window into the feelings and thoughts of Jerry Cantrell and Layne Staley at the time. It deals with the issue of hard drug addiction in such a direct and overt way that there has been no equal since the masterful album "Velvet Underground & Nico", where Lou Reed honestly wrote about his experience with the song "Heroin" and told us how he waits for "Man" to sell it for $26 In the song "I'm Waiting for the Man". You could even say that "Dirt" is actually a concept album about heroin since most of its songs deal with this deadly drug in one way or another.
"Dirt's" musical style is much heavier and gloomier than its predecessor, an album with a lot of sadness and rage, the most "metallic" grunge of the early '90s, and despite that, it was a huge success, quite a bit of which is attributed to the shaky and "breaking" lyrics of Jerry and Layne. This album managed to produce five successful singles and became the best-selling album by "Alice in Chains" to date. It also entered a high spot in almost every possible ranking list of the 90s and is ranked 6th and most respected in Rolling Stone magazine's big grunge album list as well as in the list of 1001 albums you must hear before you die.
The writing session between Layne and Jerry continues on this album as well with an advantage for Jerry who also became more vocally dominant on this album. On the other hand, Layne wrote for the first time and played the guitar in two songs on the album.
(Photo: Chris Carroll)
The background to this amazing work begins with a tour designed to promote the previous album "Facelift" released in 1990. In September 1991 the band rides the wave of success of the album "Facelift" which becomes the first grunge album to reach "gold" status in sales and the band's future looks promising. But then the record company makes a tactical mistake. It brands the band as a metal band and teams it up for the "Clash of the Titans" tour along with bands like Anthrax, Megadeth, and Slayer. The tough crowd of the thrash giants fails to connect and the band is humiliated and receives boos during its performances.
In November 1991 the band enters the studio to record their next album, but a dream dreamed by drummer Sean Kinney caused them to change the plan and go for an EP called "SAP" which was released in February 1992. Dream or reality, it was an ingenious move. The band managed with just four acoustic songs to erase the mental image that the record company was trying to equate to it. And if the four songs from "SAP" still haven't got the message across, then the back cover of the EP sure did. It shows the band members peeing on their old photos and saying hello to the image that was forced on them.
This is it! The move is complete. The band was ready for its big breakout.
Four months later, in June 1992, the music video for the song "Would?" was released. Which is designed to promote director Cameron Crowe's "Singles" film. The clip shows a completely different "Alice" both externally and musically. They look deliberately "anti-metallic" and sound like nothing else there has been until then. It was a song you could not remain indifferent to. A masterpiece that opens with Mike Starr's pulsating bass line and Sean's rolling African drumming, which without any warning grabs you with no ability to resist, and you're addicted. A masterpiece in which each of the instruments seems to be alone in the studio, playing solo for itself, but somehow all of them merge together and form a meteoric connection. This song also closes the album, which Cantrell wrote as a tribute to his good friend Andrew Wood from the band "Mother Love Bone" who died in 1990 and is undoubtedly responsible for the band's big break and the tremendous anticipation from the upcoming album.
The song talks about the weaning process and what happens after it, with the last part of the song ending with the question of whether the future is more promising. Hence the question mark in the title of the song. Cantrell sang all the stanzas in the song and lined up the chorus. At the end of each line in the verses, Layne completes Cantrell in the harmonies of a second voice, and the combination between them is simply amazing. It's unbelievable that Layne had to convince Cantrell to sing and how great that Cantrell agreed because the combination of voices between them on this album is undoubtedly "divine" and is responsible for quite a bit of its so unique sound.
This "appetizer" called "Would?" is definitely not a one-off and despite the magnitude of the anticipation for its release, this masterpiece called “Dirt” left no room for disappointment.
The album opens with the angry cries of Staley and Cantrell with "Them Bones" and with Cantrell's chromatic riff that throws us in unusual beats of 7/8 which later become 4/4. This change of rhythm pushes this song strongly forward and is exactly what makes this band different and so special in the grunge landscape from the early 90s. A short, compressed, and sharp song like a knife that for 2:30 minutes manages to shake you and smash your "bones", against the backdrop of Cantrell's sarcastic lyrics that preach to you to just live and not be afraid of death because we all end up like bones.
The song "Dam That River" continues at a fast pace and is led by Cantrell's heavy and nervous riff, with his blues-metal solo after the second verse and back again until the abrupt end. And this time, Jerry and Layne's vocal harmonies blend into the verse, with Layne singing the chorus alone. According to the explanatory note in the booklet Music Box, while Cantrell and Sean were fighting, Sean broke a table on Cantrell's head, and in response, Cantrell wrote the song.
In the third track, we slow down the tempo a bit with "Rain When I Die" which includes perhaps Cantrell's best guitar work on the album. The only song that gives credit to all the band members opens with the slow bass line and Kean's strange rhythm when later Cantrell enters and manages to produce strange and varied sounds from the guitar that blend nicely with his and Layne's voices and the Doom atmosphere.
From here we move on to one of the great songs from the album "Down in a Hole". It's a song with simple lyrics and breaks. Each line here is more destructive than the other and has the potential to become a tattoo or be engraved on tombstones. It's a power ballad that Cantrell wrote to his girlfriend Courtney Clarke, which undoubtedly shows how painful, hurt, and exposed he is. The vocal combination between Cantrell and Staley in this song is just amazing. Two voices sing separately but merge into one voice that roars and shouts. Just think of the level of sensitivity of Staley who even though he did not write the lyrics presents the song as if it is his own and is completely identified with him. It is interesting to note that Cantrell was initially afraid to play the song to the band because he thought it was too quiet, but the band loved it and it was good that way.
Immediately after the song "Sickman" and the fast and mechanical rhythm cut into a slow waltz, we reach one of the highlights of the album "Rooster". Rooster was a nickname for Cantrell's father as a child in light of his "Show Off" personality and the hair curls he had and later adhered to as part of his service in Vietnam. Rooster is also a nickname for soldiers carrying an M60 machine gun as well as for the unit in which Cantrell's father served in Vietnam, but the prevailing opinion is that these versions originated by mistake. The song, written by Cantrell while living in Chris Cornell's home, is told from the point of view of a simple soldier serving in Vietnam and conveys the atmosphere of the war and also the post-trauma that followed. A gloomy and slow song that opens with guitar items caressing and howling in pain and later develops into a roaring and angry blues-metal.
In the song, "Junkhead" Layne tries to tell us what it means to be addicted to hard drugs, to heroin. Layne explains to us that you can't really understand what's going on in a drug addict's mind until you become one. This song connects lyrically to the song "God Smack". Staley wrote the song together with Jerry Cantrell and based it on his addiction to heroin, providing us with a cold look at the addiction process, with sentences like: "Stick your arm for some real fun, So your sickness weighs a ton". Not for nothing did Jerry Cantrell define these two songs as the band's most honest songs, or in his own words - "most openly honest".
Interestingly, Staley and Cantrell said that the second half of the album builds a narrative about the progression of a heroin addict, from messing in drugs just for fun to descending into hell. The first track in this narrative is "Junkhead" and the second is the theme song "Dirt". Although the song does not specifically refer to drugs, it certainly looks directly into Staley's suicidal thoughts, which are a direct result of the heavy use of drugs. Staley does not try to beautify things and writes harsh lyrics that describe in chilling detail the way he is going to take his life. He even leaves instructions on how to clean up the mess he will leave behind, literally in the lyrics of the song:
I want to taste dirty, a stinging pistol
In my mouth, on my tongue
I want you to scrape me from the walls
And go crazy like you've made me
But although the theme song "Dirt" fits well with the narrative of the heroin addict, in several interviews conducted with him, Staley scattered hints from which we can learn that the song may have been written about his fiancee Demri Parrott. He referred to the album cover which corresponds with the theme song and noted that it is a form of "revenge" on a certain person who actually "buried" him, saying: "The woman on the album cover is kinda the portrayal of that person being sucked down into the dirt, instead of me". What can perhaps bridge the two different versions for the meaning of the song, is the explanation that Parrott was the one who introduced Staley to heroin. By the way, Parrott herself was a heavy user of heroin and she passed away in 1996.
In the short part "Iron Gland" Tom Araya from "Slayer" is hosted. The segment started with Cantrell's riff annoying the band members and then Cantrell added the reference to "Black Sabbath's" "Iron Man".
The songs "Hate to Feel" and "Angry Chair" were written by Staley who also plays guitar there. Cantrell noted that he thinks "Angry Chair" is a masterpiece and that he is proud of Staley for writing here and the fact that he plays guitar here. One interpretation of the lyrics of the song is that Layne's father used to punish him when he strapped him to a chair in front of a mirror, but there is no support for this. In any case, it's hard not to hear the pain in Layne's broken voice.
The song "Hate to Feel" is another song from Staley in which he ascertains how he fights pain using heroin. A very dynamic song that includes rhythm changes, breaks and stops with Cantrell's amazing guitar work.
What makes the album "Dirt" so amazing is its sincerity. The heroin dominated here in an almost absolute way that did not allow the band members to write on almost any other subject, otherwise, it was just fake. The heroin will seep very deep into the band's veins and the first casualty will be Mike Starr who vacated his spot immediately at the end of the tour. The heroin will continue to seep in a way that will make it very difficult for the four members to function as a band. "Alice In Chains" will indeed manage to release an amazing EP and an excellent album. It will also manage to connect to one divine moment in the immortal unplugged show, but in a very sad and unfortunate way, the “heroin” that inspired the amazing piece called “Dirt” is also the one that brought the end of its classic lineup.
And there is also a small Israeli corner related to this tremendous album. On the 30th anniversary of the album, the Israeli musician Adir Laybo and friends recorded "Dirt" in its entirety, from start to finish as a tribute to the album and the great band. You can listen to the amazing results on all platforms, including here: