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.