September 29th, 1992. By the time this day rolled around the Grunge scene was at the top of the music heap. Just a year earlier Soundgarden released the album that got them attention, Badmotorfinger; Pearl Jam, having risen from the ashes of Mother Love Bone, released their uber-boring debut, Ten; and of course, Shitvana released their craptastic shitsterpiece, Nevermind. But on this day, Alice In Chains, on the heels of their 1990 debut, Facelift, and their 1991 EP, Sap, released their second album, equal parts Sabbath worship in music and lyrical documentation of the heroin addiction that would eventually claims the lives of two of the band’s members, Dirt. Upon it’s release was probably THE darkest album to be released in the mainstream at that point in time, with most songs blatantly about frontman Layne Staley’s radiply growing heroin addiction. But lets make one thing clear before I go any further, none of the guys in the band were squeaky clean. This wouldn’t be a Seattle band if any of them were, right? Hell, Jerry Cantrell admitted to taking Xanax during the recording of Dirt for severe clinical depression and was also drinking heavily.
Of course, heroin wasn’t the only subject matter tackled on the album, thanks to the handful of tracks written entirely by guitarist Jerry Cantrell. In fact, one of those songs, “Them Bones” is the album’s heavier-than-fuck opener. Written in a very Soundgarden-like 7/8 time, not even Kim or Chris on their best days could come up with a riff as crunchy as this. Besides, it’d mean playing more than just single notes! Add to that morbid lyrics about fearing death and a badass solo but Cantrell and you pretty much have a taste for what was to come. This would definitely sound NOTHING like Facelift. “Dam The River” kicks the door down immediately after “Them Bones” with even more drop-D Sabbath-style Metal. It’s amusing when Cantrell explains that the song was written in retaliation for drummer Sean Kinney breaking a coffee table over his head and knocking him out because he wouldn’t shut the fuck up. Musicians take note – this could be you.
Alright, here’s the first set of Layne Staley lyrics, “Rain When I Die”. There are a lot of things happening in the lyrics that’ve led to many interpretations from Layne predicting he’ll before he can even get help to him letting someone take the fall for something he did (a drug deal maybe?) to him claiming that even junkies have feelings. That last one will forever be debatable as far as I’m concerned. The music? Pure Sabbath worship. So many slow, snaky whammy bar dips, crying out throughout many layered guitar tracks. It’s almost like the song’s an “Iron Man” tribute to Iommi himself, backed up by an absolutely solid bass vamp by Mike Starr.
“Sickman” is such a HUGE track, switching from a frantic riff that just makes you panic to a slow waltz tempo at multiple points. Fuck, it sure makes me anxious while thinking about it. But the real high point to this track is Layne’s layered vocal harmonies at the midpoint. To most fans, the centerpiece to any classic Chains track is hearing Layne’s stacked harmonies. They were always surprisingly well thought out and added almost a morbid sense of finally to such a doomy backdrop. But this is also why Jerry Cantrell was and still is a GOD. Taking a break from themes of morbidity “Rooster” is the most epic track on the record. Written entirely by Cantrell, the song was a tribute to his father, a Vietnam veteran. He was estranged from his father for years and this was his way beginning to mend fences. It clearly worked: his father is interviewed on camera for the intro to the music video. And Jerry plays the part of his father in the video. It’s actually very powerful:
Following up the band’s big “Kumbaya” moment we’re thrown right back into heroin hell with “Junkhead”. I don’t think I need to explain what’s going on here: “What’s my drug of choice?/What’ve you got?/I don’t go broke/And I do it a lot”. But it almost sounds like Layne was letting everyone know that he’d become one with the fact that he was junkie and didn’t care, especially when he sings that “You cant understand a users mind/But try with your books and degrees/If you let yourself go and open your mind/I’ll bet you could do it like me and it ain’t so bad”. It’s almost as if we was writing his own eulogy.
Following that is the snaky title track. It’s yet another Cantrell-style exercise in Sabbath worship, but with an atmospheric tone that is almost unpredictable, even if it also sounds like the end of something is coming. It’s pure depression. Of all the tracks on here, especially “Angry Chair”, this to me is the track that just oozes pure emotional pain. When first heard Layne sing the lines “I want you to kill me and dig me under/I want to live no more” I totally believed it. Just remember, heroin isn’t necessarily the type of drug that makes you energetic like cocaine. It’s supposed to provide a supposed euphoric effect but as far as I’m concerned it just makes people more depressed and makes them more withdrawn, or more of an asshole. Used for pain my ass! The final moments, in which the tempo gradually slows down, reminds me of someone going to sleep…or fading away. Was that was Layne was thinking when he heard what Jerry came up with?
Now, long before some piece of shit New England band took their name from an Alice song and even stole their logo, “God Smack” was another track about heroin. It’s admittedly not one of the best tracks on here but I definitely love the main riff. Remember me mentioning an “Iron Man” tribute in “Rain When I Die”? It happens again in the short interlude track “Iron Gland”, featuring vocals by Tom Araya. “Hate To Feel” is the first of two tracks written entirely by Layne Staley, music and everything. The riff is very bluesy, yet very Sabbath inspired, based on it’s single note main riff, the backdrop to lyrics in which Layne blames his father for his addiction. In later years he claimed that he’d try to get sober and his father would come by asking him for drugs, so it’s possible.
The next, and last track written completely by Staley is one of THE most memorable and breath taking tracks, “Angry Chair”. I did say “Dirt” was the track with the most pain, but “Angry Chair” was the track where Layne not only describes in detail the horrible withdrawal symptoms of heroin, but also gives to clear of a picture of his own mental state. It’s such a jaw dropping lyric, even if he is seemingly predicting his own end as he sings “Loneliness is not a phase/Field of pain is where I graze/Serenity is far away…”. Considering it’s one of the first songs Layne ever wrote entirely it’s a masterpiece.
“Down In A Hole” is one of the darkest love songs Cantrell or anyone for that matter has ever written. His harmonizing with Layne is spot on before Layne takes off on his own. Unsurprisingly, he was apparently high as fuck while recording his vocals for this one. What is kind of surprising is how he was clearly able to keep himself together while recording his masterful triple harmony lines near the end. I’d show you the video but it honestly is lame so here’s the song.
Originally written for the Singles soundtrack and therefore recorded before the band even went into the studio for Dirt, “Would?” is the albums closing track. Also written by Jerry, the song was written about Andrew Wood, the lead singer of Mother Love Bone who died of a heroin overdose on the eve of the band’s debut album release. This is actually very significant to not just Dirt‘s roots but to the Grunge scene’s future. Many people will say that before Wood’s overdose the music that came out of Seattle was for the most part nowhere near as sad and angry as it would become. In fact, it was said the he was full of life and energy nd everyone loved the guy. So therefore his death took a toll on a lot of people. One of the reasons Cantrell was on Xanax was apparently to help him cope with this.
As far as his lyrics were concerned, it was pointed at those who pass judgement on others for their mistakes, as bought up in the final chorus line “So I made a big mistake/Try to see it once my way”. I guess I can see his view but I also can’t. Maybe that was the point, being I’ve never touched a single drug in my life. The music, and incredible display of soft and loud dynamics while never losing it’s aggression before Layne closes out the song, and this drug fueled shitstorm of an album by asking us “If I would could you?”.
The events following the release of Dirt could be comparable to see a legitimate prophecy live out. In early 1993 bassist Mike Starr was fired from the band for his own drug problems and replaced by Ozzy bassist Mike Inez. After a while the band stopped touring regularly after dropping off an opening spot with Metallica and rumors of Layne’s drug use ran rampant. After the release of their 1995 self titled album and their 1996 MTV Unplugged appearance, where Layne looked like a fucking pink haired corpse, he went into hiding. Aside from the band’s Music Bank boxset, no one really heard from Layne again, until he was found dead of his apartment in Seattle in 2002. The autopsy report determined that he died two weeks before he was even discovered, making his death date April 5th, the exact day Cobain offed himself eight years earlier. Mike Starr was found dead in 2011.
Dirt was Alice In Chains’ masterpiece. It was as dark and heavy as any Heavy Metal album could be. And Layne Staley’s lyrics were honest. He didn’t play with words and guessing games with you, like that jackass Cobain did. He told it like it was…and most likely as it was happening. it was mentioned after he died but with Dirt, Layne seemed to really be prophesizing his own death, while Jerry Cantrell was his doomy, sludgy, pallbearer.
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