A nude woman is stretched out on a desert landscape, hair plastered around her, blank-eyed, seemingly accepting her doomed fate while molding into the cracked earth. The light illuminates her and we can’t tell if she’s alive or dead or somewhere in between. It’s hellish – like something out of a nightmare – and it’s uncomfortable to look at. And that’s just the cover of the album – the music transports the listener to another circle of hell.
The onslaught of “Them Bones” begins the descent into Alice in Chains’ trademarked hell. This haunting sophomore album was released in 1992 – the peak of grunge-era madness — when bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden dominated the rock airwaves. From a music era noted for its introspection, angst, and gloom, comes the band that is perhaps the most introspective, angsty, and gloomiest of all. Jerry Cantrell’s slow, brooding, distorted metal guitar is complemented by Layne Staley’s haunting vocals, projecting vulnerability along with the anger and hurt that simmers under the surface. And this combination along with subjects that include drug addiction, loneliness, and self-hatred render AIC as one of the heaviest bands, sound- and music-wise, out of Seattle.
Dirt establishes the Staley/Cantrell duo as the cornerstone of the band. If it weren’t enough for the guitar and vocals lining up perfectly with the messaging, the duo harmonizes throughout the record, especially on “Would” and “Down in a Hole”, sounding like a pair of eerie beach boys. Cantrell’s lower, measured singing contrast with Staley’s potent belting. In “Down in a Hole”, Cantrell is the steady backbone that lends depth to the song, harmonizing effortlessly with Staley.
It was on this album that Staley used his voice in interesting ways. According to Dirt engineer, Dave Jerden, Layne improvised frequently, adding in the signature opening screams and vocal parts into the beginning of “Them Bones”. In “Godsmack”, he uses his voice as more of a musical instrument, modulating it throughout the verses. Dirt engineer, Bryan Carlstrom, commented that it was as if Layne was using a “tremolo” pedal on his voice. Besides that, Staley also took the approach of layering vocals on songs, doubling the tracks which increased the texture of the vocal sound, becoming a signature touch for the band.
An interesting tidbit around the history of this album is that it was recorded in Los Angeles around the time of the Rodney King trial. The verdict was announced on April 29, 1992 which was coincidentally the same day the band started recording the album in LA. The incident led to almost a week of riots in LA with over 60 deaths and over 2,000 injuries. The atmosphere of unrest and anger that had been suppressed for too long, now bursting in an overt display of violence, along with the band’s inner turmoil formed much of the feeling and sound around the record. While people were getting pulled out of cars to be beaten on stopped highways and stores were being looted, Alice in Chains was creating music of desperation, anguish, fear, and self-disgust, not far from the zeitgeist of the times.
The album forms a cohesive storyline towards the end – from “Junkhead” to “Angry Chair”, the music tells the doomed story of the isolated, self-loathing drug addict. “Junkhead” sounds like the narrator is still in the euphoric phase of the addiction and attempting to rationalize his excessive drug use. “Dirt”, the title track, illustrates strong feelings of self-disgust at the addiction which has greatly impacted the narrator’s dignity and willpower. In “Godsmack”, the narrator finally acknowledges that the drug use which he formerly exulted in, is not glamorous but a source of shame and regret which will impact the rest of his life. On “Hate to Feel”, the narrator faces the reality of his drug addiction and failed attempts to kick his habit. By “Angry Chair” and “Would”, the listener receives a swan song of sorts with the addict resigning himself to the addiction and the path it will lead him down, ending all attempts to get clean. It’s a harrowing tale with foreshadowing of things to come for its lead singer.
Dirt stands the test of time – it’s just as relevant today as it was 25 years ago. Listening to this album is like taking an uncomfortable journey – delving into those aspects of the psyche that are shameful, frustrating, and difficult. The experience is rewarding and hopefully the listener finishes the record with a sense of clarity since the subject matter is as pertinent today as it was then. One of my favorites and a classic for the records, this is one album I have on repeat for those hot, scorching, cloudless July days.