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Alice in Chains' 1992 album, "Dirt," came out at the perfect time. Self-pity was just taking hold as not only the popular emotion, but was almost forced into kids by a generation of adults once again trying, and failing, to understand what goes on in a teenager's mind. Due to the media's obsession with catering to teens' mood swings, not to mention a certain fascination with the return of garage-band mentality, Seattle's music scene was pushed to the forefront, with constant airplay on all rock stations.
Yet "Dirt" succeeds where every single other album of that scene failed. While "Dirt" wasn't the only depressing album released from that movement or even that year, it was the only album that successfully conveys the emotion that is expressed through the lyrics. Many of the lyrics deal with the idea of death. It's not as if Alice in Chains was the first band to explore the subject; the second half Judas Priest's "Stained Class" dealt with dying, while all of Metallica's "Ride the Lightning" was about different ways of dying. Both bands pulled it off surprisingly well, given the stereotype of metal lyrics having the intelligence of a screen door. But what separates "Dirt" from those two albums is the angle that death is approached. Instead of lyrics about killing others or being killed by others, "Dirt" paints death as a relief from all the problems that the world has to offer. Metallica's "Fade to Black" did a fine job approaching the subject, but it merely scratched the surface of the idea of suicide. "Dirt" digs deep into the mind of a human who believes that he has nothing to live for.
Layne Staley's conflict with suicidal thoughts is prevalent, and adds credibility to a subject that has been overdone in today's watered-down musical climate. Instead of wanting suicide as a way to lash out at the fact that he can't get a girlfriend, he seeks suicide as a relief from the stresses of touring, stardom, and most of all, the lows that are synonymous with frequent heroin use. At times he seems trapped by emotions that he cannot control:
"I'd like to fly
But my wings have been so denied"
Other times he described suicide as a way to get his detractors to take him seriously:
"I Want To Taste Dirty, A Stinging Pistol
In My Mouth, On My Tongue
I Want You To Scrape Me From The Walls
And Go Crazy Like You've Made Me"
Even at its most upbeat, (Junkhead), Staley seems to nonchalantly accept that his addiction will lead to his undoing; almost as if he could see his demise that would occur nine years later. The only song that steers clear of this mood, at least lyrically, is "Rooster;" a rock radio staple that still receives airplay to this day. The lyrical content makes it stick out like a sore thumb, but the minor-key chords are still present, along with the Staley/Cantrell harmonizing that gave this band such a distinctive sound.
This harmonizing between the two anchors the album, making the choruses all the more powerful, yet also ready for frequent airplay on the radio. The title track, "Angry Chair," and especially closer "Would?" are the best examples of these harmonies, but nearly every song features the two singing together at some point. And when they aren't singing, Jerry Cantrell lets loose simple, distorted riffs which are surprisingly effective at keeping the choruses in their place. That Middle-Eastern sounding riff in the title track? Amazing. Without the music being this strong, the lyrics would be easily overlooked. To the casual listener, the differences between this and any other CD circulating around would barely be noticeable, other than the fact that these lyrics don't suck. Musical credibility must be established before lyrics can be dissected and admired.
Any experienced metalhead would be likely to dismiss this based on the album's chart success. Most likely the majority of the kids that bought this album were impressed by the album's well-polished sheen that is given off, especially by the songs that received time on the radio as singles. Like any other pop album in their collection, this CD or tape was in and out of their players in less than a year, if not six months. Yet closer scrutiny reveals that this album's foundation that it was built upon is much stronger than several listens through would suggest. Staley does not seek pity when he sings, Cantrell does not seek respect when he plays his guitar. Yet each earns it regardless of their intentions.
The only time this album falters is when it gets too superficial for its own good. "Sickman" and "Hate to Feel" are pure filler and "Godsmack" defines mediocrity; how humorous that such a mediocre band would choose that song as their namesake. Of course, these missteps barely hurt the album and are easily skipped.
"Dirt" stands out from the thousands of albums released in this genre (and yes, this is metal, not grunge) because an overdone subject is approached in a mature manner that does not force the listener to pay attention; instead subtly calling upon the listener to feel the words, and as a result the listener experiences the pain through Staley. The atmosphere that surrounds this album is much more convincing than anything else released in that time period.