Re-evaluating: Alice in Chains – Dirt

It’s sad that, of all the possibly exciting and interesting harms that could end my pointless existence, it will be a knife fight with my illustrious colleague that will kill me. The knife fight will be over this album.

Dubbed “Kindergarden” by their local Seattle scene, a reference to them being an inferior Soundgarden, Alice in Chains started with plenty of hair-metal tendencies but soon fell into the sludgy sound that defined the early 1990s. Dirt, their second (and breakout) album, released a full year after Nirvana’s Nevermind, and seemed to bridge a gap between the grunge sound that was cool and the metalhead bands that suddenly seemed old-fashioned. They got labelled as youthful and cool, but it’s clear that underneath the power chords there’s a ton of guitar wankery.

Few albums have earned me so much mockery from Mark as Dirt has, and I won’t deny that much of that mockery is earned. Like Pearl Jam’s Ten, which Mark has already ripped up, the drums on Dirt sound like they were recorded in a cavern. Then there’s the fact that virtually every song has a solo on it, a major Mark faux-pas. Need I mention the excessive wah-wah pedal on a few tracks?

It doesn’t help my case that the band chose to pair the music from Dirt with some of the worst videos of the 1990s:

Sharks! Spiders! Snakes! Smashing shit! A disgusting, long, dangly goatee!

But just take a minute to enjoy that guitar part. What a riff. An odd time signature, a super chromatic (and thus dissonant) chord progression, a deceptively technical high lick off the top of each repetition, the huge sound of the drop-D tuning. And yes, there is a lengthy guitar solo in the song, but it mixes guitar-wank flair with a surprising amount of melodic progression. The solo sings. Well, at least as much as it masturbates.

And Jerry Cantrell’s guitar work is consistently this good across Dirt. Yes, it veers into somewhat tedious territory, like the endless wah-wah middle eastern riff on the title track. But mostly it mixes ugly chords and riffs with subtle (and not so subtle) touches of skillful playing, and the end result is dark and heavy and dissonant and melodic all within the same songs. These guitar parts really are inspired.

Just listen to how, in one song, he travels from heavy, chromatic power chords intro to an anthemic, notey chorus, to a simple but melodic solo.

And while we’re here, take a listen to that chorus. In the midst of all this ugliness are the most interesting vocal harmonies in guitar music of the era. Unlike the standard thirds used in most songs, Layne Staley’s lead vocals were often hammering on one or two high notes while Cantrell’s harmonies travelled around underneath. Across the album, you get the feeling that you’re listening to choirboys from hell. How they managed to make such ethereal vocal harmonies jive with these chromatic guitar parts is one of their great feats.

And while we’re on the vocals, it’s impossible to talk about Dirt without noting the phenomenon that is Staley’s voice. Dirt‘s vocals are such an incredible fluke, the voice of a man consuming boatloads of heroin but not yet ruined, a voice with range, emotion, and unique character from someone with absolutely no discipline. Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell may sail to higher heights, Pearl Jam’s Veddie may have a more timeless male quality, but Staley’s voice never gets thin, never sounds weak, and never becomes farcically masculine. He is a stupidly capable singer, and even if you aren’t a fan of his timbre, it’s difficult to argue with his talent.

As a lyricist, he is much easier to criticize. A couple years after Dirt came out, I remember someone jabbing at his “junkie grade school poetry”. And that’s a fair description of them. But time and death have afforded the lyrics some gravity. While Cantrell’s lyrics—for “Them Bones” and “Would?”, for example—are sufficient at evoking some vague, menacing tone, Staley’s lyrics have an unadorned honesty that draws you in. Part of it is knowing that this heroin junkie, who died of a speedball overdose before the album’s tenth anniversary, is completely unapologetic for his lifestyle and thinks everyone would be just like him if they could stop being so judgemental. That he can’t see his future misery, as described on the later, weaker self-titled Alice in Chains album, or that his habit will waste him away and ultimately kill him, lends his simple words an affecting air. Some singers make you feel the same emotions as them. Staley has you watching in horror from outside. And occasionally he’s there with you, sharing glimpses of that horror of what he’s becoming.

There’s a drummer and a bass player in the band, too. Both are quite talented but only add enough small touches that they are interesting, never exceptional. But really what makes Dirt special is the interplay between Cantrell and Staley.

And while Alice in Chains would later influence all the worst bands of the late 1990s, the Creeds and Nickelbacks and Stainds and Godsmacks and such, nobody ever sounded quite like them. Nobody ever repeated the preternatural ability, technical prowess, and melodic/dissonant complexity; they just aped the distorted guitars and sneering voice. Nobody ever laid bare their shortcomings so plainly, or pushed so aggressively while also remaining resolutely spindly, unthreatening men. So yes, Dirt has its shortcomings, but there’s something satisfying in the heaviness, the harmonies, and the honesty. I spent the night driving and was very happy to sing along to these songs, even though part of me knows they’re corny.

Plus, in the tradition of many great albums, it leaves its best song for last:

So come at me with your knife, illustrious colleague. I like the guitar solos!