Album Review : Alice in Chains - Dirt (1992)
Ask any rock fan to name you an Alice in Chains record and the first answer will most likely be Dirt *. It is their quintessential record, which conveys their brand of sludgy, tormented heavy metal and their themes of frustration, powerlessness and melancholy best. But Dirt bizarrely divides fans into two camps: those who believe Alice in Chains was better without drugs, who enjoy the free flowing Facelift better and those who believe they were better WITH drugs, who enjoy the more somber and elegiac self-titled successor to Dirt. It’s often a second favorite, but rarely a first choice.
Is Dirt overrated, underrated or properly rated in Alice in Chains’ legacy? Let’s reexamine this dark, unsettling piece of rock history together.
Dirt’s ferocious opening track Them Bones is a statement of intent, featuring Jerry Cantrell’s walloping guitar riff and hollow, sarcastic lyrics about confronting mortality. It’s perhaps the heaviest song in their entire discography. Layne Staley’s primal, high-pitched screams between the verses are paramount to setting the apocalyptic atmosphere of that song. Without ever sacrificing anger and heaviness, Them Bones accomplishes in two minutes and a half what most bands can’t accomplish in their entire career: being dark enough to create a sense of genuine unease for the listener. It’s considered an Alice in Chains classic, but it’s also an iconic rock n’ roll moment.
Dam That River follows Them Bones with equally aggressive guitars, but a slightly more conventional rock structure. What it lacks in atmosphere and originality, it makes up in lyrical depth and allegory. It’s a gorgeous, tormented natural metaphor about the bitter ending to a friendship and the feeling of powerlessness of seeing someone inexplicably turn on you. If the opening tracks of Dirt have a somewhat rigid structure, it’s not always the case on the album. The lenghty into to Rain When I Die features roaring, muddled guitars before launching into a mournful power ballad about the end of a relationship foreshadowing the end of life.
Ballads is one thing that Dirt does incredibly well. Their creative approach was such a departure from how things were done back then. Rooster, a personal Alice in Chains favorite of mine, is a song about war and survival that remains so powerful today because it can be interpreted as an allegory for surviving any sort of adversity. Its loose, wandering structure relies on the sheer power of its chorus and Staley/Cantrell harmonies to carry it through. It’s a little long, but it’s a state-of-mind kind of song. You sing it under your breath to give yourself courage. Down in a Hole is another memorable ballad, which addresses feelings of depression and self-loathing with the same earnestness one would write a love song with.
Perhaps the best song and the Dirt-iest song on Dirt is the closer Would?, which is also arguably the most famous song from the record. Lead by a thudding mid-tempo bassline and reverberating guitars, Would? creates an atmosphere of frustration and regret before Layne Staley even takes the microphone. Originally a song about the passing of Mother Love Bone’s singer Andrew Wood, it has since them become an anthem to bad life decisions and the strange sense of comfort of self-destructive patterns. It’s a truly powerful song, but it’s not a happy one. It’s a song to either wallow in your misery to or to energize yourself to and bust out of a bad situation.
Is there anything that Dirt doesn’t do well? I can only find details to nit-pick, really. A song like Sickman isn’t bad per se, but comes of as straightforward and repetitive compared to other colossal rock anthems on Dirt. Same for Angry Chair, which is a fine song in itself, but cannot hold a candle to some of the bolder ballads like Rooster or Down in a Hole. One weird thing about Dirt that’s more on the technical side, is that Layne Staley’s vocals are often absurdly low in the mix. And they’re uniformly low. Sometimes it works, but on an emotional powerhouse like Would? for example, I would’ve loved to hear Staley’s screeching his heart out like he’s capable of.
Dirt is overall fondly remembered album, but I don’t believe it gets all the love in deserves. In the singles-driven era it came out, it’s rare to find such an album with literally NO weak songs on it. My theory is that Dirt is so dark and drenched in such unbearable sadness, it makes people feel uneasy. It features a bad at the height of its songwriting and performative powers that knows it is already doomed by the substance abuse problems that is tearing them apart. That’s why this feeling was unspeakable back when the album came out. The band knew what was up before we did. Dirt packs raw, real life-altering emotions and that’s difficult to deal with for anybody. But it did create a rock n’ roll classic. Dirt is…. kind of underrated still?
* Don’t tell me it’s because it has an easy title to remember. Alice in Chains album titles in the Staley era contained either one or zero words.