Album Review : Alice in Chains - Unplugged (1996)
MTV Unplugged concerts have been a thing for over thirty years, now. Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York is arguably the only relevant cultural artifact from this concept, but there is apparently still people ready and willing to pay to listen to their favorite mainstream artists perform acoustic versions of their songs in an intimate setting. Alice in Chains did that in 1996, one year after releasing what would be their last album with frontman Layne Staley. It was de facto a funeral for the grunge era and perhaps the least grunge performance from an artist qualified to be grunge.
If there’s any lesson to be learned from Alice in Chains’ Unplugged, it’s that they never were a freakin’ grunge band to begin with.
So, Alice in Chains has always been the story of two bands, right? The doom-influenced heavy metal outfit and the folk rockers. What makes them fascinating is that the line between the two isn’t always clear, for that folk informs a lot of their song structures and artistic choices. The main appeal of Unplugged is to put them on equal footing, played in the same style and atmosphere. It’s an album * where the song choice and overall interpretation is more important than the songs played. And these are dark as fuck. Unplugged is perhaps Alice in Chains’ gloomiest album.
Half of the songs interpreted on Unplugged are some of the band’s darkest and a lot of them deal with Layne Staley’s heroin use or the idea of an ending: Down in a Hole, Angry Chair, Got Me Wrong, Heaven Beside You, Would?, Over Now. They’re delivered by a weakened, brittle Staley who’s almost immobile on his chair, wearing long sleeves and shades to conceal his predicament. Unplugged is half Alice in Chans’ folk songs like Nutshell, Brother and No Excuses and half doomy, demise-driven anthems. Only two songs on the original broadcast didn’t fit this theme: Rooster (which they HAD to do) and Sludge Factory.
Frogs and Killer is Me ** weren’t originally aired on the broadcast.
Musically, I thought the cuts from Sap and Jar of Flies couldn’t hold a candle the others. Even No Excuses (which I love) feels out of place so early in the set list. That song is a serene goodbye and the Unplugged performance is anything but serene. Alice in Chains (in its first iteration) is a band that fueled on powerful, often negative emotions. Even in their weakened state, the band carries an intensity and a sadness that lifts their darkest songs above the rest. Rooster, Heaven Beside You and Over Now (the album’s only single) in particular were haunting and memorable. What they lack in power, the band makes up in sadness and frailty.
I wanted to review Alice in Chains’ Unplugged as part of my retrospective because it really was their last recording for thirteen years. Layne Staley was already severely drifting into drug abuse then and he would only get deeper into it until his passing in 2002. So, it was the proper conclusion to the first iteration of the band, where they reaffirmed their identity as the heaviest, darkest band in grunge. Even if they had more to do with heavy and doom metal than grunge. They were heavy and dark even without loud volume and distorted guitars. They had folk influences, but they were integrated in their own transcendent sound. They were truly unique and powerful.
* And it’s true for every Unplugged album. Not just Alice in Chains’.
** They’re not very good songs to begin with. Frogs is by far the weakest cut on dog album. Not sure what was the thinking here.