ALICE IN CHAINS “DIRT,” TURNS 20 TODAY.
It was Sept. 29, 1992 when Alice in Chains released their sophomore set, ‘Dirt,’ a brooding masterpiece that would stand as one of the ’90s best works.
Having made inroads with their debut full-length ‘Facelift’ and its pre-grunge explosion single ‘Man in the Box,’ many felt the group was primed for something big now that their music scene was finally taking off nationwide. They didn’t disappoint, and got an early boost when the song ‘Would?‘ from the forthcoming album would turn up on the ‘Singles’ soundtrack. The melancholy track was penned by guitarist Jerry Cantrell as a reaction to the death of his late friend, Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone, who died from a heroin overdose a few years prior.
Cantrell would state on the ‘Music Bank’ liner notes, “I was thinking a lot about Andrew Wood at the time. We always had a great time when we did hang out, much like Chris Cornell and I do. There was never really a serious moment or conversation, it was all fun. Andy was a hilarious guy, full of life and it was really sad to lose him. But I always hate people who judge the decisions others make. So it was also directed towards people who pass judgments.”
The feelings brought about by addiction issues would play a large role in the recording of ‘Dirt.’ ‘Them Bones‘ would be the second single from the disc (first if you consider ‘Would?’ initially coming from a soundtrack prior to the album’s release). From a vocal standpoint, there’s not much more powerful than the primal scream that Layne Staley delivers at the beginning of the song. On the lyrical side, Cantrell would state that the track was his take on the mortality that faces us all. The guitarist also took great pride in the track’s 7/8 time signature, telling Guitar World, “Off-time stuff is just more exciting. It takes people by surprise when you shift gears like that before they even know what the hell hit ‘em … A lot of Alice stuff is written that way. ‘Them Bones’ is a great off-time song.”
The other major songwriter in Alice in Chains, Layne Staley, stepped up with the band’s third single, ‘Angry Chair.’ The singer even strapped on the guitar to add a little something extra to the track. ‘Angry Chair’ is also a notable song in the band’s history as it was one of the final moments where bassist Mike Starr got to shine. Starr would eventually exit the band, leaving Mike Inez to finish out the disc and eventually take over as a full-time touring and recording member. But before he left, Starr and drummer Sean Kinney laid down the killer low end on this classic cut.
The group hit on something big with their fourth single, ‘Rooster.’ The haunting opening melody of Staley and Cantrell is spine tingling, and the way Staley moves between the moody intro into the full-on belting of “I ain’t gonna die” later in the track shows his range. Cantrell wrote the song about his Vietnam War-vet father, who was nicknamed “The Rooster,” and the track shares some of the horrors of war that his father finally opened up about. It would go on to become the biggest song on the disc, topping out at No. 7 on the Mainstream Rock Chart.
Finishing out the singles was ‘Down in a Hole,’ a rare love song from Alice in Chains. Cantrell said in the ‘Music Bank’ liner notes, “It’s to my long-time love. It’s the reality of my life, the path I’ve chosen, and in a weird way it kind of foretold where we are right now. It’s hard for both of us to understand … that this life is not conducive to much success with long-term relationships.”
In addition to the singles, the album is filled with heavy goodness, as the chugging rocker ‘God Smack,’ the darkly wailing ‘Rain When I Die,’ and the hard-hitting ‘Sick Man‘ are among the standouts that never got commercial airplay.
By the time the album cycle was complete, Alice in Chains had gone from potential buzz band to having their rock ‘n’ roll legacy cemented. ‘Dirt’ was the right album at the right time, and took full advantage of being released at the height of the grunge era.