Album Review : Alice in Chains - Facelift (1990)
I was nine years old when grunge became a thing in Canada. A couple months after I discovered rock music, it had taken a dark, confronting turn my child self was emotionally unprepared for. That’s when I was introduced to Alice in Chains, a band that was musically heavier and overall more challenging that their contemporaries. This year, I will go over their discography and try to answer the following questions: were they ever a grunge band and if they aren’t, what are they exactly? I’m not sure Alice in Chains’ legacy is appreciated for what it is.
Let’s start today with their iconic debut Facelift.
Alice in Chains is primarily labeled as a grunge band, but they couldn’t be anymore different from movement flag-bearers Nirvana and there’s perhaps no better album than Facelift to understand how different exactly they were. Because they weren’t their super heavy, brooding selves yet and really put their influences and inspirations on display. For example, the opener We Die Young flaunts catchy, anachronistic riffs that could’ve come from any Californian metal of the eighties and bare, stripped down lyrics that recall early 1950s rock n’ roll in their structure. The topic is gloomy (kids dealing drugs), but the song itself is groovy and in-your-face.
Sea of Sorrow is another song with undeniable eighties metal influence. It’s perhaps not as fast and flurry as, let’s say Mötley Crüe, but it would be easy to imagine someone like Axl Rose sing the chorus: I live tomorrow/You’ll not follow/As you wallow/In a sea of sorrow, over Jerry Cantrell’s heavy, guttural guitar riffs. So Guns N’ Roses and Black Sabbath are two undeniable influences on Facelift, but there’s some surprising classic rock innuendo thrown in there too. On Sunshine, a song written about Jerry Cantrell’s mother, you almost expect a coked-up, adrenaline-fueled Bob Seger to start performing before Layne Staley brilliantly takes command.
Speaking of which, the hidden treasure on Facelift is, in my opinion, Love, Hate, Love. It’s the longest, slowest and barest song on the record, which allows Layne Staley’s powerful, charismatic presence to really take over. His raspy, sometimes nasal delivery translate the feeling of danger and unhealthy obsession Love, Hate, Love is about. It puts on full display what Cantrell and Staley can do when they’re working together. I haven’t talked about Man in the Box yet, but I don’t think it needs reexamining. It’s great, everybody knows it’s great and that it doesn’t mean all that much since Layne stoned out of his mind when he wrote it.
So… you know, it can mean whatever you want it to mean. That’s the beauty of music.
Facelift has some of the most iconic Alice in Chains songs, but there’s pretty much all in the first half of it. The second half of Facelift is much less memorable. It Ain’t Like That and Sunshine are still marginally remembered today, but the album peaks with Love, Hate, Love and slowly loses the identity if built after that. Jerry Cantrell said it numerous times itself, Facelift is the album where Alice in Chains figured out their sound, so hits-and-misses are part of the process for such a young band *. It’s nonetheless an iconic album that paved the way to slow, sludgy subgenres of metal that are popular today and a window on Alice in Chains’ influences.
* Cantrell was 24 then. Staley turned 23 the day after Facelift was released.