Album Review : Alice in Chains (1995)
Heavy, brooding and melancholic are qualifiers often associated to Alice in Chains. They have many other qualities, but it’s the sadness and foreboding that people remember so fondly. And that’s mostly because of their third, self-titled album. The dog album. The last recording of the Layne Staley era. Today, it’s a cultural milestone that separates poseurs with corny lyrics about facing death from those who have really self-destructed before our eyes. They had been there. They lived it. Alice in Chains faced their own demise and created a monument to it.
If Alice in Chains’ previous album Dirt was the sound of a band fighting for its soul, this one’s like walking through its wreckage towards the inevitable end. The iconic opener Grind is as heavy as anything the band ever recorded. It is driven by a crushing, building-shaking, Iommi’esque guitar riff and ghastly harmonies by Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell who confront rumors of their early demise. Of course, the rumors turned out to be right, but their mission statement with Grind was to go out with a bang and it absolutely worked. This song survived Father time because it’s about showing strength even when you don’t have any left.
The songs written (and performed) by Jerry Cantrell on this album were profoundly different. I don’t believe it was a coincidence they were used as singles either. Layne Staley was unreliable in the recording process because of his drug problem and Cantrell didn’t seem to trust him with the strategic songs of the album. But that dude can write. The second single Heaven Beside You is perhaps the band’s most accessible song, which beautifully mixes their blues and old school heavy metal influences. Sure, it’s another breakup song, but what makes it so poignant is the end of that bridge: I’m just see-through faded/Super Jaded/Out of my mind.
Heaven Beside You translates the weariness of being in a destructive relationship that both echoes Jerry Cantrell’s love life, his relationship to Staley or any failure between two well-intentioned human beings. The closer Over Now is less notorious because it never had a video, but it’s a seven minutes-long funeral for projects that might’ve been and things that went awfully wrong. It kicks in right off the bat with Cantrell saying: Well, it’s over now/But I can breathe somehow. Everything collapsed, but I’m still alive. It’s an hymn to courage through defeat to getting back on your feet. The simple acoustic setting tinged with electric passages really sets an eerie, post-apocalyptic mood that enhances the song.
So that’s Jerry’s side of the album. It’s the most important because it’s what fans mostly remember from the dog album, but Layne wrote the majority of the songs on it and some of them are just as memorable. Again is perhaps his most haunting heroin song, where he describes the power it has on him like he was talking to an abusive lover, over an fast-paced, obsessive guitar riff. God Am is one of my favorite Layne Staley’s penned songs where he just fucking rages over his fate, knowing that he’s doomed. Dear God, where have you been/I’m not fine, fuck pretending, he says on it. Musically, it’s not the most memorable, but it’s sang with such passion and fury, that it just takes you anyway. It feels real and urgent.
Another memorable song from Alice in Chains’ self-titled album is Sludge Factory, which was meant as a fuck you to studio executives who wanted to rush the recording process. It’s a long, deconstructed mess that starts heavy and formulaic and breaks into pieces halfway through and incorporates odd-fitting, acoustic blues guitar segments. It’s angry, unpredictable and yet composed in a way only Cantrell and Staley could be. There was no one in the world that would hurry them through this important recording session and they made sure the world would remember. It’s not as universal as the other songs, but its raw feelings no less intoxicating.
So, is Alice in Chains’ self-titled their best album or is it Dirt? That’s the chicken-or-the-egg question that fans have been debating for two decades. To be honest, there’s no clear-cut answer to that. Dirt has no bad songs whatsoever on it, but self-titled has perhaps the most intense and memorable ones. They are two faces of the same coin to me. Two parts of the same odyssey towards self-destruction. What makes it so powerful is that you know it know in hindsight, but you knew it then also. There was something dark gnawing away at these guys. And they made the most of it. They created an anthem to beauty and courage when the world collapses around you. That deserves to be forever remembered.