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Dirt by Alice In Chains is, without a doubt, an interesting piece of popular American music history. This is when bands from the gloom n’ rain state of Seattle reigned supreme in American music during the early 90’s spearheaded by Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Mudhoney, with their brand of Sab-inspired, moody riffs and tons of Gen-X-isms appeal. And then, there was Alice In Chains.
They stuck out like a sore thumb in the scene, because unlike other bands, and disregarding Cobain’s suicide, they bore the gift of suffering in Layne Staley’s drug addiction, which eventually led them to spiral down into obscurity, and Staley’s death years after. Whereas some artists swoon over listeners with their uplifting sound inspired by their drug consumption, Dirt makes sickened emotions and dejected feelings drawn from drug use painfully unsettling.
The band takes us to a harrowing journey with every song, giving us glimpses of a man’s tortured soul, where his addiction becomes tangible with every howl he musters, and Jerry Cantrell’s talent for crafting distinct guitar shapes and strange melodies. In ‘Sickman’, the occasional drug-induced portion before the chorus throws off the listener into this hallucinated, drugged state, before bringing them back into the reality of its damning effects with a heavy lurching dirge. The dejected mood resurfaces once again, as the harmonized vocals above the clean part creates this menacing wall of confusing drawn from the disturbing atonal voices. The muddy and quick-sand feeling that ‘Junkhead’ incites further attests to the disconcerting content of the album. ‘Dirt’ is where Staley bares himself and confesses his dejected state. It is clearly one of the most painful tracks crafted by any band, where the lyrics are self-defecating and the exotic tinge makes the message of the song more brooding.
Despite these songs, there is a fair mix of tuneful and potently strong tracks amidst the muddle. ‘Them Bones’ and ‘Dam That River’ are chugging classics with mixes the band’s heavy edge with mainstream elements and catchy vocal performances. ‘Rooster’ is a touching ode to Jerry Cantrell’s father who fought in Vietnam. Another slow number, ‘Down in a Hole’ becomes some sort of a statement for this album, where Staley’s desire to escape his addiction drags him back even deeper, perfectly captured by the beautiful lyrics. ‘Would?’ is another sterling track with a catchy hook and pop sensibilities.
In the end, it is disheartening that such a talented band is made great by the adherent use of illegal drugs. Dirt wound up becoming one of the best albums of its genre. Unfortunately, it is not only the album, let alone their music, that the band would be remembered for.