Album Review : Alice in Chains - Jar of Flies (1994)
Alice in Chains have a complicated history. They became a successful, iconic band without ever really being musically or personally stable. Their evolution seemed dictated by circumstances more than artistic ambition. The one predictable thing they’ve done is releasing their 1994 EP Jar of Flies. Blues and classic rock influences had always been the bedrock of their sound, so actually playing it seemed like the most normal thing in the world to fans like me. Jar of Flies one of Alice in Chains’ best remembered albums. There’s a weird aura of serenity to it.
But is the music really that good? That’s what I went to find out in the Spotify time machine.
If fans and non-fans alike remember Jar of Flies so kindly, it’s because of the tremendous lead single No Excuses. It truly is an amazing song and has become a karaoke classic over the year. The instrumentation is pretty formulaic (it’s a classic verse-chorus-verse rock song), but the lyrics and the passionate performance by Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell make it an Alice in Chains immortal. No Excuses is a song about their relationship being torn by forces their can’t control (i.e. drugs), which Cantrell ends with this gut-wrenching vow: You my friend/ I will defend/And if we change/Well, I love you anyway.
It’s a song you can sing to yourself whenever you’re going through hard time with a friend or loved one. It has the universal appeal of a folk song. But No Excuses really is the only monster hit on Jar of Flies. There are other songs that are great, but none that come even close of being in the same league. For example, the other single I Stay Away didn’t age well at all. It has a clumsy string section that undermines the song raw emotional power right when Layne delivers what is supposed to be a crushing bridge. It makes I Stay Away sound like background music for an insurance commercial. It’s not a bad song, but if State Farm can sell you home protection to it, it doesn’t have the edge that it should.
My second favorite song on Jar of Flies is Don’t Follow, a bluesy, melancholic harmonica-and-acoustic guitar song about walking away from loved ones for their own good. It’s another of these introspective songs that written in a way anyone can relate. The moody instrumental Whale & Wasp is another of Jar of Flies’ calling cards, setting an eerie, wordless atmosphere that would color any room it plays in. I’m personally not a fan of either Rotten Apple or Nutshell. The former sounds like it was written by an untalented admirer and the later, although popular with fans, doesn’t really have something to call its own. It could’ve been any 90s band’s song.
One thing you need to understand about Jar of Flies, it’s that it was created quickly. It was written and recorded within a week, by musicians exhausted from touring, their lead singer’s drug abuse and internal conflict. It’s normal that not every song hits the mark. Jar of Flies is solid, but the reason why it’s so well-remembered today is because it’s accessible. It’s a harmless gateway into Alice in Chains’ music and dark lyrical themes. The only song I keep on playlists in 2019 is No Excuses. But what a great fucking song that is, right? And if you can hit that kind of perfection for four minutes, who cares if the rest in uneven.