Alice In Chains - Dirt

By September 29, 1992, the music called “grunge” was no longer the property of any subculture; between Nevermind, Ten, and the Singles soundtrack, Seattle provided the score for American lives across countless demographic lines. Just two weeks earlier, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden had wrapped up two months on the road with the second annual Lollapalooza touring festival. Cameron Crowe’s Singles had been released to theaters only 11 days prior (the soundtrack preceded it by nearly three months). In the spring of that year, Candlebox had recorded their first demo; by October, they would be the subject of a bidding war. Indeed, by that fall, every bar and basement in Seattle had been invaded by major label A&R reps, who seemingly signed everything in the city capable of carrying a guitar, from cranky stalwarts like Mudhoney to total n00bs like Green Apple Quick Step. By mid-November, Perry Ellis would show its Marc Jacobs-designed “grunge” line, and The New York Times would run its famously inaccurate “Lexicon Of Grunge” feature. It was a boom time. Gold in them thar hills.

Alice In Chains predated the rush by years. They had been signed in 1989, to Columbia, and packaged, to some extent, as a metal band (the same way Faith No More, Jane’s Addiction, 24-7 Spyz, and Voivod were packaged as metal bands, i.e., awkwardly). They had toured with Ozzy and Van Halen. They already had one gold-certified album (1990′s Facelift). They also had one gold-certified EP (the all-acoustic Sap, which had been released in March 1992, and featured guest spots from Chris Cornell and Mark Arm) and a standout song on the Singles soundtrack (“Would?”), both of which were blatant label-driven maneuvers designed to repackage Alice as a grunge band, to recontextualize them as part of the valuable Seattle landscape, rather than the rapidly receding metal scene. But 20 years ago, on September 29, 1992, Alice In Chains released Dirt: an album that is neither grunge nor metal, yet is deeply indebted to both; an album that explores the darkest arteries of the dark heart of Seattle; a flat-out, no-two-ways-about-it masterpiece that stands behind only Nevermind as the best album produced by the grunge scene that dominated charts and headlines, and changed the face of popular music.

Among its myriad qualities, Dirt is without question the bleakest album ever to go quadruple platinum (beating out In Utero in this regard), and that darkness is in its marrow. The band started recording the album with Dave Jerden (who also produced Facelift) in Los Angeles on April 29, 1992 — the same day the Rodney King verdict was delivered, which led to six days of rioting, 2,000 injuries and 53 deaths in LA; the chaos not only suspended the recording sessions, but left the band spooked. All four members of the band reportedly engaged in drug use, but two of them — bassist Mike Starr and especially vocalist Layne Staley — imbibed to dangerous degrees (Staley’s heroin dealer was said to be a constant presence at the studio during mixing). That ugly blend of violence, fear, sickness, nihilism, and death provides the clay of Dirt.

The album kicks off with a prophecy of self-destruction — the chorus of “Them Bones” goes, “I feel so alone / gonna end up a big ol’ pile of them bones,” but that’s not half as disturbing as Staley’s wordless shrieks punctuating the song’s opening measures: He sounds like a man being flogged. From there, things don’t lighten up much. After the violent, recriminatory “Dam That River” (reportedly written by guitarist Jerry Cantrell about a fight he got into with drummer Sean Kinney) and the panoramic self-loathing of “Rain When I Die,” comes what is perhaps Dirt’s finest moment. Written by Cantrell for his “long-time love,” “Down In A Hole” is an anthem of loss, revulsion, and depression. But it really is an anthem first and foremost. The verses build slowly to a soaring chorus with an irrepressible melody. Staley’s pained howl guides the song, but its power derives from Cantrell’s terrific harmonies, which give the piece heft and also a sense of unease. Ryan Adams has covered “Down In A Hole,” and it’s the type of thing he should absolutely crush, but his version is curiously wanting: He alters the melody, losing the song’s climactic rush, and while he’s a fantastic vocalist, he can’t match the sheer power produced by Staley and Cantrell.

Following the sinister and unnerving “Sickman,” Side A closes with “Rooster,” inexplicably the biggest hit spawned by Dirt (it reached No. 7 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Tracks chart). The song’s success is inexplicable partly because it’s not the most “radio-friendly” by traditional metrics (it clocks in at 6:15, for starters), but also because its subject matter is so damn specific and obscure: It’s a tribute to the two combat tours served in Vietnam by Cantrell’s father as a soldier in the U.S. Army. It’s probably as close as Dirt comes to uplifting (“You know he ain’t gonna die” is about as optimistic as things get here) but only relatively speaking. And anyway, after that, Dirt gets a whole lot more fucked up.

In the book Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History Of Grunge, Cantrell says that the second side of Dirt was intended to be something of a concept piece: “Those five songs on the second side, from ’Junkhead’ to ’Angry Chair,’ are in sequence because it tells a story. It starts out with a really young, naive attitude in ’Junkhead,’ like drugs are great, sex is great, rock and roll, yeah! Then as it progresses, there’s a little bit of realization of what it’s about … and that ain’t what it’s about.”

That may have been Cantrell’s intention, but “Junkhead” hardly sounds like a celebration. The song captures the same paranoid narcissism and out-of-control lunacy as the scenes from Jesse’s drug den in Season 4 of Breaking Bad. It also includes the album’s finest chorus and sweetest harmonies: “What’s my drug of choice? / Well, what have you got? / I don’t go broke / And I do it a lot.”

From there, the bottom falls out with the force of a collapsing skyscraper. On the sensational title track (another contender for finest moment here), Staley is literally begging to die (“I want you to kill me / and dig me under / I wanna live no more”). On the funk-inflected “God Smack” (the album’s weakest track; coincidentally it provided a moniker for the useless faux-metal band Godsmack), Staley is lost in heroin (“What in God’s name have you done? / Stick your arm for some real fun”). “Hate To Feel” is addiction as hallucination and sheer terror; at its most coherent, it’s an admission of helplessness (“Used to be curious / Now the shit’s sustenance”). The towering “Angry Chair” is the end of the story, and it’s a miserable ending: “Saw my reflection and cried / So little hope that I died.”

Instrumentally, Dirt is decidedly on the metallic end of the grunge spectrum, and maybe isn’t really grunge at all. Occasionally Cantrell downtunes to Drop Db — not far from the Drop D tuning popularized among grunge acts by Soundgarden, but they borrowed it from Sabbath in the first place. And Cantrell’s guitar work is pure metal: all palm-muting and whammy-bar dive-bombs; every song has a dynamic, even flamboyant, solo. The intricate finger-picking passages on “Down In A Hole,” meanwhile, could have been lifted from a Death Angel album. Vocally, however, Staley bears no resemblance to the era’s metal screechers (e.g., Chuck Billy or Tom Araya); he has much more in common with Cobain or Cornell, although his tone is more muscular than both, and neither of them has such a Garfunkel-esque accompanist as Cantrell.

The final song on Dirt is “Would?,” which was lifted from the leadoff spot on the Singles soundtrack for inclusion here. At the time of Dirt’s release, “Would?” felt tacked on (as it was), but over the last two decades, it has come to occupy that position well: It remains the best song ever written by Alice In Chains, so it’s fitting to have it housed here, providing a conclusion to the band’s best album (by a wide margin), as well as one of the best albums of the ’90s. It’s also fitting because “Would?” was written for Mother Love Bone vocalist Andrew Wood, who died of a heroin overdose in 1990, and there’s probably no more apt punctuation for this tale of spiraling addiction than such a tribute.

But Dirt wasn’t an afterschool special on the dangers of addiction. For Staley, these themes were autobiographical. Alice In Chains toured behind Dirt with fellow Seattleites Screaming Trees, where Staley and Trees frontman Mark Lanegan reportedly bonded over heroin, and fell in deep together. The entire grunge scene in Seattle was more or less affected by heroin at some point, with everyone from Kurt Cobain and Mark Arm to Dylan Carlson (of Earth) and Kurt Danielson (of Tad) struggling with addiction. But no one wrote about it so directly as Alice In Chains on Dirt, and few were brought down so hard by the drug. Starr was kicked out of the band during the Dirt tour (according to Starr, the sacking was a result of his drug use); that night, Starr claimed, he overdosed on heron and “died for like 11 minutes.” In 2011, he passed away after overdosing on prescription drugs.

Staley went in and out of rehab after Dirt, leading to the band canceling tour dates and eventually going on hiatus. They got back together in 1995, to record their third album, but Staley was often late to the studio, or entirely absent. “It was horrifying to see [Layne] in that condition,” said Cantrell in a 2011 interview. “To be in a meeting with him and have him fall asleep in front of you was gut-wrenching.” The band didn’t tour behind their third album, a decision many believe was forced by Staley’s addiction. In 1996, Staley’s own long-time love — ex-fiancée Demri Parrott — died from complications caused by drug use. Staley slowly became invisible, deteriorating physically (after seeing the singer in September 1998, Jerden said, “Staley weighed 80 pounds … and was white as a ghost”) and becoming a recluse. His last public appearance was at a Cantrell solo show on Halloween 1998. He died of a drug overdose on April 5, 2002.

It’s easy to listen to Dirt now and hear only the suicide note of a man lost to addiction, but that’s reductive and inaccurate: Many of the album’s lyrics were penned by Cantrell, and even Staley was miles above bottom in ’92. The darkness captured on Dirt is much bigger than any one person’s struggle. The album wrestles with depression on a primal level, but it really does wrestle with it, neither wallowing nor surrendering. In this way, it provides for listeners not a window in, but a window out. Because when Staley and Cantrell join voices, and a gnarled verse gives way to a full-throttle chorus, the sensation is not one of anguish but pure elation. They have broken free and are soaring above all the demons that would bring them down. And they have brought you, too; with them, you too are momentarily unshackled, free, flying.

Comments (57)
  1. cantrell and staley were one of the most formidable two part harmonies in a band in that decade. never repeated again, even with the “new” AIC. Unplugged AIC is one album i never get tired of listening.

    • man! my friends Uncle charlie was right! Alice in Chains does RULE!!! even though he was twice divorced. those women were bitches anyway. well at least that’s what he said. he also used to say ‘down in a hole’ was about FUCKIN’ !!! and “rooster” was about COCAINE!!! COOL. UNCLE CHARLIE YOU RASCAL!!!! man i remember the time he came to our halloween party when i was 17. he was 32 but i guess it turns out he was cool all along cause man did he love AIC. he was dressed up as a burger king employee!!! He had the same uniform he wore when he was a teenager!!! weird 70′s hat and all! he used to talk about the two part harmonies of cantrell and staley… “them boys have better voices than those faggots with aqua net hair dos and pussy lyrics!” RIGHT ON UNCLE CHARLIE!!!! i used to think Alice in Chains was some of the most hackneyed contrived garbage i ever heard. but thank god for uncle charlie. and all the apologists at stereogum. rock on! no excuses that i know!

    • very true!

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    • Going to have to disagree. Staley’s voice is like no other.

    • Going to not go out on a limb at all and say you’re horribly wrong. To say “one of my least favourite bands of all time” is one thing. To say “one of the worst” tells me you have a disastrous ability to judge what makes music objectively good or bad.

      • Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

        • To riff, one could argue that Junkhead is a modern-day “Heroin.” I’m not making the argument, but if someone did, I wouldn’t disagree.
          To your credit, if Alice in Chains is your most hated band, you’ve deftly gone through life avoiding many, many worse ones. But I’m being subjective.

          Objectively I’d say having a singer of strong and unique voice, skilled percussion, and tasteful guitar playing with above standard tone and vibrato are positives.
          I’d also credit catchy hooks, great melodies, and interesting lyrics to the band, but those are subjective.

          • I see all of those aspects you mentioned as strengths individually, i guess my problem was more the way they were put together in this particular case.

            All of the things you mentioned were characteristic of smashing pumpkins too (just as an example), but their music never felt “ugly” to me in the way Alice in Chains’ did.

            I could riff on this one all day with you bud, to each their own, but you’re never gonna convince me to like this band, I’ve tried.

          • It’s cool, man.
            We mutually don’t care what the other really thinks. I’m just glad it didn’t spiral into something really negative, which I was afraid my initial response would have caused.

          • keep it positive man, that’s what i love about the ‘gum….

            all the snark, none of the injurious belittling…

        • Is that you Chuck Klosterman?

  3. Maybe I’m a wuss, but I’m a big fan of Jar of Flies too.

    I honestly think Dirt is too intense for me these days.

    • Jar of Flies and Sap are 2 of the best EPs i’ve ever heard…they’re one of the very few bands i’ve ever known to use EPs as an outlet for their other musical sides and they did it brilliantly. odd other bands don’t follow suit.

  4. A question I’ve always had about “Angry Chair”: is it a chair he sits on when he’s angry, or is it a chair that makes him angry when he sits on it, or is it an anthropomorphized object (i.e. Pee Wee Herman’s chair) that is usually just angry? No matter which way you look at it, I argue, it’s kind of unintentionally hilarious.

  5. Good piece all around! Nice work.

    ps. So many of these “anniversary” (birthday) pieces are turkeys with no insight about anything except the writer’s memories, which have f*k-all to do with the album: “I remember when this came out: I was…”

  6. Dirt was a big album for me. It was the first album I bought by myself (using allowance money), and the first “heavy” album I ever heard. In retrospect, it was an album that led me from grunge to metal, and it still has a mythic quality to it. The subject matter was so dark (has anything really surpassed it as a tale of drug abuse?), I understand how a lot of people couldn’t go for it. The singles were great (Would?, Them Bones, Rooster), but I stayed for the depressing and evil horror that was Dirt, Angry Chair, and Junkhead. Those songs are mean, ugly, and rotten, and for a small skinny adolescent boy growing up in the sticks, it was the soundtrack for inner turmoil.
    Over time, I grew passed it, grew passed metal (though have been coming back to it lately), but when it comes down to it, Dirt is my favorite, a monolith of a time in my life.

    • look for Dirt era bootleg concerts…that’ll freshen it up for ya, works for all great albums/eras. bootlegs are kinda what made me fall in love with Nirvana’s music after Kurt died, as well as the Live Tonight video.

  7. I loved this album back in the day, but let’s be honest: it hasn’t aged particularly well. Picking it for an album anniversary post makes the whole feature feel even more like blog filler. At this rate, you night as well have picked White Zombie’s La Sexorcisto in July.

    But mark your calendars: it’ll be 20 years next week since Gruntruck’s Push!

  8. Dirt is very epic for them, but Jar of Flies is really phenomenal. Equally powerful to Dirt in some ways instead of cheesy like some heavier bands when they go that direction- or if not as powerful, definitely great, reasonably sophisticated songs.

  9. Black hole sun is their best song.

  10. It’s a good album, but it is most definitely not “a flat-out, no-two-ways-about-it masterpiece that stands behind only Nevermind as the best album produced by the grunge scene.” Even if that were true, it’s damning it with faint praise because that scene didn’t produce very many solid albums.

    Most of the songs are good, but they stick around for far too long, and nothing really happens in them. They don’t develop at all, they just endlessly repeat two parts, have a generic guitar solo, and repeat those two parts several more times. This was a common problem for a lot of grunge bands. The songwriting was not that good. Maybe if they’d gone for a heavier approach, or had more interesting textures it would have been better.

    Oh yeah, and their lyrics are dreadful.

  11. Crushingly powerful, hauntingly dark. One of my most listened to CASSETTES of all time (I did eventually buy the CD). I don’t think it left the car for six solid months (and I drove everyday). I already had Dirt and Sap was one of the first CDs I had purchased. Bought Jar of Flies the day it was released (the one with the little plastic flies in it). I played ALL of those releases for years. But at some point, I got older, life got better, drugs weren’t as interesting and their music lost a bit of it’s hold on me. I still dig listening to my favorite tracks from time to time, though.

    Most of their songs are purposely long. It was about riding a vibe, building a mood. Soundgarden did the same thing on at least half of their songs. I certainly could never fault anybody for liking shorter songs, and it’s not like theirs sucked. Would? and Them Bones both kick ass solidly. But in the end, enjoying a long song verses a shot song comes down to nothing but personal taste. To each their own.

    Their lyrics are bad? Really? That thought never occurred to me. They’re actually nearly all autobiographical or about somebody else that the band knew, either directly or peripherally. And unlike many of their peers (Soundgarden, Nirvana) they actually have a lyrical concept or structured story that you can follow (much more like Pearl Jam in that regard). I always thought they were pretty strong lyrically. Dark, depressing even, but not bad.

    Lastly, Jerry Cantrell is a hugely underrated guitar player, singer, songwriter and arranger. They guy took somewhat of a backseat to Lane when he could probably have fronted the band on his own. And that’s nothing against Lane, I dug that guys voice immensely.

    • he is underrated but NOT in the metal world, they smartly worship him and he finally has his own signature G&L guitar too, i’m so tempted to get one haha, i used to drool over that guitar in their videos…

  12. Also, I really enjoyed the last paragraph of this article. Nice job overall, but you closed that last door brilliantly.

  13. In high school I started playing bass guitar. I learned every song on this album through trial and error by playing along to it (this was pre internet tab sites). If I recall correctly I had to tune my bass down a half step. That’s all I have to say about that.

  14. i LOVED this album so much, listened to it constantly for 2-3 yrs, makes you miss Lane so much hearing it now…same with Jeff Buckley, Nirvana out-takes…without question one of the top heavy albums of all-time, metal/hard rock/grunge whatever.

  15. At the tender age of 14 it taught me how to harmonize, play a guitar-solo with conviction, and that drugs are bad; the first two of which I stuck with for the remaining years of my adolescence, and the third, well, some drugs are bad? No, seriously, heroin fucking sucks. Nice piece-

  16. Great article! Never knew “Junkhead” through “Angry Chair” was originally intended to be a concept piece. AIC was one of the first bands I latched on to in my early teens, so it was refreshing to learn something new about an album I used to listen to constantly.

  17. One lost side note – “Down in a Hole” was placed after “Angry Chair” in the first pressings.

    I was profoundly disappointed when I found out (years later) that they’d moved it up. The transition from “Angry Chair” to “Down in a Hole” was my favorite on the album, and it followed “Angry Chair” perfectly. It was a perfect coda for the album.

    (Having said that, it actually made “Would?” feel even more tacked-on.)

  18. I was far too young (13) to appreciate the drug addled self-loathing of this record when it was first released, but it rather gives me the chills now.

    Fun fact, I ended up getting Dirt in my Columbia House 13 pack over Faith No More’s Angel Dust because the latter had a song called Crack Hitler on it, and I was concerned my mom would find that alone far more offensive bleak songs about heroin abuse.

  19. Props to cecilparks to bringing up Gruntruck! They opened for AIC & Screaming Trees and easily blew them both off the stage. No one probably believes it, but I saw the tour twice. I’m not saying that “Push” is better than “Dirt”, but I saw AIC several times and they were just not that good in concert. Cantrell solo(and with the new incarnation) was actually better than any of the AIC shows I saw. Regardless, “Dirt” is probably their masterpiece. I loved “Sap” & “Jar Of Flies” as well. I don’t think “Dirt” was better than Soundgarden’s “Badmotorfinger”(and they were much better live also), but it’s definitely up there with the great albums of the 90′s or rock and roll in general.

    • “Push” was a big album for me that year as well. I saw the AiC/Screaming Trees/Gruntruck tour and, yes, I can confirm that Gruntruck blew both of the other bands off the stage. I saw them a little later headlining with, if I remember correctly, Dangerous Toys (?) at some filthy club in St. Louis. Yikes. Some of those riffs on “Push” were just jaw-dropping. Where’s that Skin Yard reassessment?

    • I’m glad you liked Gruntruck, and in the context of 1992/1993 I enjoyed them too, but my point was mostly that a lot of albums seem fantastic at the time they’re released. It doesn’t mean they need to be celebrated 20 years down the line.

      AIC was influential, yes. I can hear a direct influence in the music of Godsmack, Seether and Nickelback. That’s not influence I’d want to wax nostalgic about.

      • Aside from one indirect mention of Godsmack, I left discussion of AIC’s influence out of this piece, partly because it wasn’t relevant, and partly because they (and Pearl Jam, and even Nirvana and Soundgarden) pretty much inspired the worst rock music … well, ever, IMO.

        But to limit one’s understanding of AIC’s artistic contributions to the output of their immediate followers is pretty reductive and frankly off-topic. All the bands you mentioned (and plenty more!) watered down AIC’s approach to create something much less compelling and intense. But AIC, especially on Dirt, weren’t working from someone else’s blueprint, and there’s not much compromise in their music. (I could state my own feelings regarding the album’s artistic value here, but I’d just be repeating what I already said in the piece.)

        Furthermore, I don’t think their influence can be fully assessed just yet. For example: Have you heard the band Man’s Gin? It’s a project from Erik Wunder, who also plays in the fantastic American black metal band Cobalt. I think they’re pretty great FWIW. Man’s Gin comes from the same dark places as Cobalt, but musically, it’s nowhere near as violent or abrasive. I detect a strong AIC influence in Man’s Gin’s sound, and I think we’ll hear more good and important music spawned from that sound, especially as the modern metal scene evolves.

        (Here’s some Man’s Gin music in case you don’t know them:

  20. I’m older than dirt

  21. I like reading about old great alternative/rock music as much as anyone, but what does it say that three of the top five most popular posts are about reminiscing about old music? Just curious what everyone else thinks. Maybe nostalgia is just more fun.

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  23. Besides Rush, Alice in Chains is THE most underated band of all time. Dirt is an absolute masterpiece. If you don’t get them, you are afraid, plain and simple.

  24. crabtron  |   Posted on Sep 30th, 2012 0

    I’m just now getting into that album Quarantine, by Laurel Halo, and I’m really liking it. So I decided to arbitrarily comment on it in this thread, which as far as I can tell is in no way about Laurel Halo. But if I posted this comment in a dated Laurel Halo thread, no one would see it at this point. All I want is for people to appreciate the fact that I appreciate Quarantine, the album that I’m listening to and liking right now. I don’t think that’s asking too much.

  25. Great album and one of the best of the 90′s. Someone who likes twee indie bands or those wussy beard flannel mandolin indie folk bands like Sanford & Songs is definitely not going to be down with this album so that fat guy Kevin’s comments are not surprising. Indie rock fans can’t handle any band that shows any hint of masculinity or testosterone since they’re usually dork vegans that got bullied in high school. If you can’t hear the brilliance of songs like “Rain When I Die”, “Rooster”, “Down In A Hole” and “Would?” I’d venture to say that you don’t like rock music at all.

    • Oh and don’t forget the ironic .gif to really put me in my place.

    • crabtron  |   Posted on Oct 2nd, 2012 0

      Eh. I’m sure it’s possible to like both wussy beard flannel mandolin indie folk bands AND macho beard flannel grunge guitar bands, or whatever. I’m not hugely into either of those genres, but they’ve each got some good stuff to offer. I don’t know much about Alice in Chains, except that I remember hearing “Would?” on the radio for the first time, and I will say that that’s a pretty awesome song.

      I can’t really evaluate this album, since I’ve only heard a couple songs from it. Usually I don’t have any ties to these “(Album) Turns (# of Years)” posts, except for the one on Interpol’s Turn On the Bright Lights, which is one of my favorite albums. Of course Interpol are an indie band, but they are of the clean-shaven, crisp-suited guitar variety, and one of Paul Banks’ biggest inspirations is Nirvana. I guess my somewhat rambling point is that they’re not mutually exclusive. It’s all connected, man.

      Also, I should mention that the only reason I wrote all this was because I didn’t have a good ironic .gif ready. I really should build up a stockpile of those. They’d save me a lot of typing.

  26. I don’t really see how Cornell & Cobain got bunched together vocally, even if it was trying to show Staley as unique.
    Not a bad write-up though in general, even if I don’t regard it nearly as highly in the early 90s rock pantheon. Know a few people who do, though.

  27. I always thought Alice in Chains was a poor man’s Soundgarden. I’d put Soundgarden above anyone, right alongside Nirvana, as the most important and trailblazing band out of the Seattle, not grunge, scene.

  28. Great article!

  29. Probably the best article I ever read about this masterpiece.

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