In late April 2013, I sat in the Sonoran Desert, listening, for the first time in years, to Alice in Chains’ “Nutshell”. The occasion for this event was a cousin’s First Holy Communion. Her family lives just outside of Phoenix, Arizona, and though their neighborhood is willfully suburban—massive sports complexes don’t naturally exist in the desert—the Sonoran’s vast, charred landscape is never entirely masked by strip mall sprawl. Indeed, from the relative comfort of my cousin’s back patio, it seemed that any of the hundreds of miles that stretch outward from there to the Pescott National Forest (and well beyond) could have served as the setting for the cover photo of Alice in Chains’ Dirt.
On that late April evening, I found myself listening to AIC for the most banal of reasons: my uncle had set his satellite radio to the Lithium channel. As a teenager, I was a fan of Alice in Chains, perhaps more so than of any of the other grunge bands of the early-1990s. To date, I have probably heard “Nutshell” hundreds of times. Still, on that oppressively hot night, I found the song more moving than I ever had in the past. There was something eerily appropriate about Layne Staley, a victim of a fatal drug addiction, crooning, “I’d feel better dead” on the eve of a sacramental celebration. Catholicism, if nothing else, promises the ecstasy of an afterlife, a life that begins when the eternal soul is resurrected from the imperfect, ever-decaying body. In a way, Staley’s sentiment is entirely Catholic, which is a thought that I honest-to-God never imagined I’d think.