The Darkness of Dirt
With 1990’s Facelift, before Nirvana blew the scene wide open, Seattle’s Alice in Chains were getting a metal push, thrown on tour with the likes of Slayer and Megadeth, repeatedly booed off stage in a genre where they didn’t belong. In early 1992, on the bare boned acoustic EP SAP, with its laid back and richly textured depth, the band erased the record company promoted image in only four songs. And just in case the music itself didn’t get the point across, on the back cover, the band members are shown urinating on their own old press photos, showing a none too thinly veiled view of their immediate past.
Still, nothing could prepare the music industry for what was to be the encore.
That June, the video for “Would?” was released to promote the soundtrack to the film Singles, and it showed a completely different Alice in Chains. They looked decidedly non-metal, as a throbbing bass line and tribal drumbeat intermingled with scenes from the Cameron Crowe love letter to early ‘90s Seattle. Singer Layne Staley, with shorn and slicked back blond hair, defiantly screamed “If I would / Could You?,” words that also signaled the cathartic ending to a landmark Alice album released in late that September.
To get to that resolution was a dark trip unlike any seen throughout the grunge era. Nothing was held back, no flaw left buried and no drug reference went unsaid. From the absolutely scorching bombast of the opener, “Them Bones”, two-and-a-half minutes of furious screaming, patented harmonizing between Staley and Cantrell and a downright relentless chugging riff, it was clear that this record was intent on separating itself form the Pacific Northwest pack.
“Dam That River” continues the breakneck pace, with Staley’s sneering “Oh, you couldn’t dam that river / And maybe I don’t give a damn anyway” letting loose not with anger or malice—but rather matter-of-fact disgust while spitting out the lyrics, which, like many on Dirt, were penned by Cantrell.
“Rain When I Die” slows the tempo slightly, but the passionate depression only grows. Cantrell wah-wahs his way through the only effort on the record with writing credit given to all four band members, which was enough, since the guitarist needed some serious demons exorcised on his own, made clear on the track which followed, “Down in a Hole”. Lyrics had already set the tone for nearly the whole record—and it’s not pretty. The love for heroin. The pain caused by heroin. The torturous withdraw from heroin. The vast wasteland of self-destruction and loneliness when heroin is your only friend. Make no mistake, this is the deepest and most blatant exploration of addiction on record ever. “Down in a Hole” simply confirmed it and exemplified everything Dirt was about.. Starting off unassuming and pleasant enough with a sparse guitar intro, the track quickly turns the bleak knob to black. By the time Staley laments “I have been guilty / Of kicking myself in the teeth”, one gets the sense the noose has already been lowered.
Giving further credence to the theory that Dirt is actually conceptual in nature, “Down in a Hole” was the second to last track on the original pressings, but didn’t exactly carry the theme of hope that would come with attempting to extract oneself from the grip of heroin as the songs progressed. It was subsequently moved to the fourth song slot, just before “Sickman”, a title self-explanatory in its own right. The song shifts gears from drums mimicking a racing heartbeat and a chopping guitar to a melancholy break, only to rise again before dropping into the swells of Staley and Cantrell finding vocal synchronization once again.
The album isn’t completely about heroin though. There is a break from the drugs to a topic just as depressing; Cantrell’s dedication to his Vietnam vet father, “Rooster”, addresses the desire to make it out of the war and coming home only to find a country where he was looked upon as anything but a hero. Even with its almost ballad like tendencies, “Rooster” still remains classic Alice in terms of heaviness, and fits right in alongside everything else on Dirt.
The centerpiece of the record is undoubtedly the trilogy of Cantrell/Staley compositions, disturbingly showing that they shared the same headspace, the mind of a junkie. “Junkhead” is the quintessential form of music that Alice in Chains perfected and later became known as “sludge rock”. The guitar and bass together sound like they’re being dragged through the La Brea Tar Pits, and Staley slogs his vocals through the murk in tandem. Praising the drug, chastising those who dare to criticize, “Junkhead” is the ultimate pro-heroin song, with its celebratory ending “I do it a lot! / Say, I do it a lot!” Yet by the time the title track kicks in, the come down is obvious, as the symptoms of withdraw have driven the user’s mind to thoughts of suicide. The track is even more swampy than “Down in a Hole”, if only for its complete hopelessness. “God Smack” is the brink of schizophrenic insanity, with Staley taking on no less than three tones to his range. Heroin by this point has become an all-consuming religion to the junkhead.
After a brief, seemingly maddening, nameless interlude, (later titled “Iron Gland” on the Music Bank box set), “Hate to Feel” jumps back and forth in both theme and sound, spiraling downwards before rising back quickly with the help of a slicing guitar riff. Less schizoid than “God Smack”, but no less back and forth with a conflicting rage and despair waging battle throughout the song before coming to head in a furious mish mashed ending.
“Angry Chair” is Staley’s way of confronting his demons, facing them through the pain, and recognizing that it’s all been a terrible, life-threatening mistake. It has a brooding darkness that segues perfectly into the redemption sought in “Would?”
What makes Dirt so amazing, is that it was so real. This wasn’t heroin dabbling resulting in some flash of artistic genius. This was drugs controlling the situation so powerfully that there was almost nothing else to use as subject matter, because that would’ve been faking it. In retrospect, it’s obvious that nothing was contrived. Bass player Mike Starr was the first casualty, leaving under a cloud of drug-fueled rumors immediately after touring for the record. Alice in Chains themselves never quite got it together after the album, though still putting out viable, and just as dark material with another acoustic EP and a self-titled LP, but playing only a handful of dates to support the releases. Perhaps the fragile state of Staley, tragically evident in the 1996 Unplugged concert shows why. The singer would battle through addiction on his own, living Dirt over and over again before he finally succumbed to the vices just over a year ago. The record wasn’t celebratory by any means—but you’ll be hard pressed to find a more brutally truthful work laid down—and that’s why it will always be one of the greatest records ever made.