On the cover of the new Alice in Chains album, their first in 14 long years, sits a heart. Not a beating heart, nor a particularly healthy-looking one, surrounded as it is by a deep hue of black; just a heart, looking as if it were coldly dissected from its human counterpart. It’s hard to tell what this clinical anatomical illustration is supposed to represent for Black Gives Way to Blue. It could symbolize the revived life in the new Alice in Chains, bursting forth from out of the ashes. Alternately, the dearth of colour in the image suggests a suffocating and slow death. Regardless of the meaning, re-form Alice in Chains have, and it’s to everyone’s surprise that they sound as confident and, well, as good as they do on their fourth studio album.
The front cover of Black Gives Way to Blue is significant mainly because it aptly expresses the thematic uncertainty that seems to plague the album. Returning to the table as Alice in Chains for the first time since the death of former lead singer Layne Staley in 2002 — and in reality, it’s the first time the band has recorded new material since 1998 — the grunge veterans appear slightly unsure where to pick things up. Returning to the fold is Jerry Cantrell, lead guitarist and secondary singer, bass-player Mike Inez, and drummer Sean Kinney, three-quarters of the original band. William DuVall, their touring vocalist for some years, joins them as the new lead singer.
What this reunion has produced in Black Gives Way to Blue is an album that sounds, fascinatingly, just like the Alice in Chains of old. All the small signatures, the trademarks that made Alice so great and so distinctive in their ’90s heyday, are picked up on: a brooding darkness in tone; the almost-dissonant, eerie match of harmonies; the affected ‘yeahs’ at the turn of a phrase; the plangent modality and caustically chromatic guitar solos. Musically, the album doesn’t miss: Cantrell’s guitar bites like it should, the production is top-notch, and it batters with more assurance and presence than any handful of contemporary rock bands, most of whom are deeply indebted to Alice in Chains in the first place. Black Gives Way to Blue confirms that the long-suffering group have earned this kind of reverence — they’ve lost none of their sonic chemistry since disbanding after Staley’s death. Speaking of which, DuVall, who made his name onstage as a very good Staley imitator, manages to channel that ghost throughout the record. Yet there’s a feel that Cantrell has assumed creative duties — this is very much his album, and at all times he drives its direction.
Black Gives Way to Blue contains 11 handsome tracks. The album on the whole is curiously obsessed with the idea of balance: it sounds removed in concept if not in sound from the stuttering, lurching textures of Dirt and Alice in Chains. The disc is carefully paced, sequenced so that the hit single “Check My Brain” crops up early, the lush anthem of new beginnings, “When the Sun Rose Again”, counters the black hellfire of “A Looking in View”, and the molten ballad of the title track comes last. This uniform evenness is as good a way as any to re-introduce the band to the mainstream after its many years away… and yet Black Gives Way to Blue can’t help but sound slightly awry in places.
Perhaps it’s too professional to really captivate. And it makes no difference at all to say it, but this fan misses Layne and the inspired insanity he brought to Alice in Chains’ work. It becomes even more apparent on Black Gives Way to Blue that the Cantrell-Staley partnership was one of covering for the other: Staley’s introspective bleakness, vocal originality, and tendency towards experimentalism (revisited Alice in Chains lately?) were balanced out by Cantrell’s musical versatility, straightforwardness, and talent as a guitarist. Without Staley, however, Cantrell is left to take the reins, and Black Gives Way to Blue becomes all about balance, balance, balance.
This is not to say it isn’t a good album: it is, and worthy of being called a ‘comeback’. Cantrell’s pair of ballads — “When the Sun Rose Again” and “Black Gives Way to Blue” — are touching and delicate, two to place in the oeuvre alongside “Down in a Hole”, “Nutshell”, “Heaven Beside You”, and “Over Now”. But the long songs are too long and border on repetitive, while the album leans uncomfortably towards being unsure of what to say, or even saying nothing. “Check My Brain” has a toothy, strong hook and a world-weary temperament behind its droning, relentless grind; it’s quintessential Alice. But when it comes down to it, it’s really nothing more than a song about moving house. Similarly, “Last of My Kind”, in which co-writer DuVall barks, “I’m the last of my kind, still standing”, seems a little inappropriate here; has he forgotten Layne died only seven years ago? It’s not that any of these tracks, from the growling and tortured “A Looking in View” to the midtempo resignation of “Lesson Learned” or “Take Her Out”, aren’t enjoyable. They just lack resonance, sounding like well-dressed Alice in Chains templates.
Cantrell, who penned most of the lyrics, opens the disc with the glacial “All Secrets Known”, which celebrates the group’s rebirth: “Hope / A new beginning / Calm / All wounds are healing”. Yet Cantrell further mourns in the final track, a tribute to Staley featuring a piano cameo from Elton John that is remarkably well-matched and tasteful, that “imitations are pale”. This seeming acknowledgment of the new Alice in Chains’ inferiority to the old paints Cantrell as a confused frontman unable to draw conclusions on the future of what is now, in essence, his band. Ostensibly, Black Gives Way to Blue is about the day-to-day struggles of a group after the death of their lead singer. In retrospect, this creates its interest: how many albums are meticulously balanced as well as deeply conflicted?
Black Gives Way to Blue is a worthwhile comeback album deserving of its kudos. However, given that this is the first Alice in Chains album in 14 years, an inevitable part of its release is placing it next to their other recorded material. This makes it, sadly, their weakest album by quite some stretch, lacking the verve their first three discs (or even EPs) had. I’ll be the first to admit that the classic status of those original albums hovers toweringly over that judgment, so it’ll be interesting to see how this album develops in stature and reputation a year or five from now. Ultimately, how you rate Black Gives Way to Blue all depends on how you hear it. It’s surely not one to play right after Dirt or Jar of Flies. But it does put to shame most of what’s on the current rock market and, thanks to Cantrell’s skilful guidance, sweeps away the fears of those who thought this would be a cheap reunion album. At heart, this is a back-to-basics album a la Death Magnetic or R.E.M.’s Accelerate; not essential, but definitely worth a look.