During the grunge explosion of the early ’90s, Alice in Chains never quite became the “it” band the way their Seattle peers Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden (in that order) ultimately managed. While Nirvana caught the brunt of the initial fireball, that band’s popularity was soon exceeded by Pearl Jam’s, whose appeal was simply wider, even if it ultimately wasn’t deeper. Pearl Jam panicked when the spotlight shone brightly upon them, going to war with Ticketmaster in a move that sabotaged the logistical effectiveness of the Vitalogy Tour. The move unintentionally deflected the spotlight onto Soundgarden, the godfathers of grunge who at the time still hadn’t quite managed to capture the world’s attention the way their younger peers had. With the release of Superunknown and “Black Hole Sun,” however, the band finally was given its due by the public and officially “arrived” in the mainstream.
Woven into this narrative is Alice in Chains, a band whose recorded output was consistent from 1990–1995, but never captured the mainstream’s attention in quite the same way its peers’ did. Their debut LP Facelift was released pre-phenomenon, and as a result has never factored into the grunge narrative particularly heavily; at least, not nearly to the degree its awesome single “Man in the Box” has (thanks to its legacy on alternative rock radio). The band then released an acoustic EP called Sap in early ’92, which at the time felt completely out of left field but established something of a pattern of releasing hard rock LPs followed by acoustic EPs: Dirt would follow in late ’92, the EP Jar of Flies would debut at #1 in January of ’94, and the band’s final LP with vocalist Layne Staley, simply titled Alice in Chains, was released in November of ’95; it also debuted at #1.
Depending on your point of view, consigning the acoustic tracks to EPs exposed a potential weakness in Alice in Chains’ sound: that they couldn’t find a way to weave together the strands of their sound into a cohesive whole. And given their body of work — at least with their initial singer — it’s hard not to find some truth in that argument, since they never could quite pull together a masterpiece like their peers did (sometimes multiple times). There’s no question that the era from Sap to Jar of Flies is their peak, a period that curiously includes the most devastatingly depressing LP ever recorded cradled between two EPs that are more palatable but are just as numbing in their desolation. (Jar of Flies is particularly grim.)
Dirt, though, is in a league of its own as far as harrowing listens go. The closest companion it has on the scale is The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails, but that album is considerably more theatrical. No, Dirt is possibly the most brutally effective depiction of the depths of heroin addiction ever caught on record. It’s amazing, frankly, that the band managed to actually remain functional enough to record this, considering that multiple accounts confirm that all four band members were struggling mightily with addiction (Staley), alcoholism (bassist Mike Starr and drummer Sean Kinney), and clinical depression (guitarist Jerry Cantrell). Alice in Chains ceased to be a touring unit in its later years; even though (as noted above) their last LP with Staley debuted at #1 in 1995, they didn’t tour behind it because it simply wasn’t feasible, given Staley’s condition.
Staley eventually succumbed, passing away in 2002 with a final weight of just 86 pounds. Starr died in 2011 after a long battle with addiction, as well, though he was replaced after Dirt was recorded with Mike Inez. All of these troubling details, however, go a long way toward explaining why Alice in Chains never quite became the “it” band, even though Dirt eventually was certified quadruple platinum. There have been so many great athletes over the years who simply haven’t been able to stay healthy. Ken Griffey, Grant Hill, and more recently Derrick Rose and Tiger Woods — indisputably great athletes who can’t stay on the court, field, or course long enough to have a shot at breaking cherished American sports records (Griffey and Woods) or put together strings of great seasons (Rose and Hill). Alice in Chains’ career has been like that, though in the case of Dirt, it’s the injury that makes them interesting.
It’s an album of sustained, relentless power, one that manages to transcend the pain and offer pure catharsis. (The exceptions are “Sickman” and “Junkhead,” which are a little too on the nose and are mostly just miserable.) Many of these tracks would find a permanent home on alternative rock radio, like “Rooster” and “Would?,” which, along with “Man in the Box” from their debut, are format-defining. But it’s “Down in a Hole” that has brought me back again and again after all these years; it’s the song I enjoy the most on the album, and I think it may be my second-favorite Alice in Chains song after “Nutshell” from Jar of Flies. I was in college when I first discovered Dirt, and I was hooked on both the title track and “God Smack,” the song that comes after it, as well.
If I remember correctly, I was a senior and was feeling a tremendous amount of anxiety about having to go out into the world when there really weren’t any jobs for those of us just graduating from college at the time (this was only a year after the economy collapsed in 2008), and I listened to those two songs over and over when I was walking to and from class under the brutal Miami sun. It wasn’t a fun time. The last year of college was sort of “half in, half out,” if you know what I mean. As much as I loved college, I couldn’t have been more ready to just get out of there and start working. The only problem was, the economy was terrible, so it was actually better to still be in school, since there just weren’t any jobs for college kids waiting for them on the other side of graduation for the first time in decades. It made for a frustrating time, and I latched onto Dirt in an unhealthy way. In fact, I consciously avoided profiling Dirt on my 100 favorite albums list so I wouldn’t have to revisit that time in my life.
I had moved on a little by the time I finalized my list in November 2011 and didn’t like the album enough then to be on the list anyway, but I was relieved that I wouldn’t be talking about it. I wasn’t doing drugs at the time I was hooked on Dirt and I don’t do drugs now, but the way this album can make you feel when things aren’t going well can be troubling and drug-like in itself. It’s also an album of unusual power. Some tracks on Jar of Flies (“Rotten Apple,” “Nutshell,” “No Excuses”) equaled or even surpassed the content on Dirt, but make no mistake, we certainly never saw anything of such sustained brilliance that mined this particular vein — tapping into the darkness of the human spirit as compromised souls court death repeatedly in such a detached way — from Alice in Chains ever again. Or from anyone else, for that matter.