Album Review #1: Dirt

A review and dissection of the breakthrough 1992 hit album
October 27, 2008
Dirt by Alice in Chains (1992)

In 1986, a little-known glam-metal band from Seattle, Washington known as "Alice N' Chainz" was playing somewhat cheesy, fast-paced songs with typical pop song lyrics. Despite this, several years later, around 1989 - 1990, the band decided to take on a more serious tone, modifying their group name to "Alice in Chains", and recorded their first official studio album, "Facelift". After enjoying a mild success, they recorded another record, "Sap". This record was mostly acoustic, and signified their entrance into the new "grunge" scene, as one of the songs on the EP actually is a collaboration between Alice in Chains, SoundGarden, and MudHoney (known collectively as "Alice MudGarden"). It went mostly unnoticed, but then they went on to be featured in the 1992 film, "Singles". The movie was considered mediocre by most critics, but (with the exception of Nirvana), all of the hottest grunge bands were featured in the film, such as SoundGarden, MudHoney, Pearl Jam, and the Smashing Pumpkins. Of course, Alice in Chains was also featured, and even contributed two songs to the soundtrack. One of their songs was a new song called "Would?", which would soon be featured in their most memorable, characterizing album of the era.

"Dirt" is a trip through the pained, struggling soul and body of Layne Staley, the group's lead vocalist, who struggled with a heroin addiction (which became the cause of his death in 2002). 80% of the album is about drug addiction and potential death, except for "Dam That River", and "Rooster". The album starts with some of the lighter, more radio-friendly hits such as "Rooster", "Down in a Hole", and "Them Bones", and progressively becomes more dark, creepy, and twisted, with lesser-known masterpieces such as "Hate to Feel", "God Smack", and "Angry Chair". Closing the album is the bands's earlier hit, "Would?", which almost acts as an epilouge. While it is actually about the lead singer of Mother Love Bone, Andrew Wood, who died a few years earlier, it could also be interpreted as an overview of a hopeless junkie who has "run too far to get home", as one line suggests.

And now, for the review...

Track 1: Them Bones

This song sums up the entire spirit of the album: "one day, I'll end up a pile of them bones", Layne says, seemingly able to foresee his fate as a heroin addict. It's a elaboration on the horrific concept of life as you know it ending immediately after you die. The song also goes on to sing of how we are all simply born to eventually die. It's a song that really makes you think.

Music Video (Released 1992): Layne and the band are all performing in a dark cave with small puddles of blood, as clips are occasionally shown of scenes of birth and death of all sorts of creatures.

Track 2: Dam That River

I don't think this song got enough credit. It's a semi-light-hearted take on a fight that went on between guitarist Jerry Cantrell and dummer Sean Kinney. Layne's vocals add a touch of "badass" to this track, as well is the rockin'-awesome musicianship of Jerry Cantrell, Mike Starr, and Sean Kinney.

Track 3: Rain When I Die

Another track that should have been more popular than it was. The compostition is nice, the guitar sounds absolutely beautiful during the chorus, and I thought I even heard a tiny bit of piano in there, but it could've just been my imagination. This is the first track on the album that is characterized by Layne's unique "layered" vocals technique, in which he records several harmonized tracks of himself singing the same lyrics of the song. It must've taken a bit of work, but it was well worth it. As for the song's lyrical content, it seems to be another death-themed song. Apparently, according to more than a few, it did rain in some places when Layne Staley died.

Track 4: Down in a Hole

This is a nice one. It's calm, intricate, and a bit touching, yet sad. I'm sure many people can relate to this one, as it basically speaks of the feeling of being trapped "down in a hole" of despair, and "feeling so small", as if there's no way out, so we all just wish to finally escape to see our dream never acomplished.

Music Video (Released 1993): The band travels through a desert (probably in the rural southwestern United States), visiting several low-class people living in trailers, as well as tinkering with some random objects in the desert town.

Track 5: Sickman

The setup for this one is unique: it kicks off with what sounds a lot like their more poppy glam-rock origins, but then fades into their more depressing "hard blues" style. The lyrics are about heroin addiction, and it's sung slowly but with soul. "Hate to Feel" later in the album sounds a LOT like this song.

Track 6: Rooster

This song is considered one of their most popular "hits" ever. It is a retelling of Jerry Cantrell's father's experiences and emotions in the Vietnam War: the hardships of struggling to stay alive, watching your own friends die, and being demonized for what is not your own fault. While it makes sure to say that war is evil and no good, it reminds us to not give blame to the troops.
Music Video (Released 1993): The music video starts with a short interview with Jerry Cantrell and Cantrell's Father about what it was like in the war. It's composed of clips of a re-enactment of Cantrell's times of trouble in the war, as well as Layne and Jerry singing.

Track 7: Junkhead

This song describes the life of a drug-addict well, possibly conversing with other drug-addicts, purchasing drugs, and feeling all of the highs and lows of being a junkie.

Track 8: Dirt

As well as being the title song, this track may describe how Layne feels like "dirt" after being judged by society(?) for being a heroin junkie, which is truly something beyond one's control. He seems to sarcastically "thank" others for treating him like dirt.

Track 9: God Smack

Besides inspiring the less-than-okay ripoff, this song is AWESOME. The verses are sung with a weak, bleating voice from Layne Staley, and the pre-chorus and chorus are song in a much more clear, pronounced voice. The guitar work gives it sort of a destructive, badass sound, but the lyrics simply suggest the scenario of a heroin addict who begins to neglect those who care for him, and "smack" (heroin) becomes a god to the addict.

Track 10: Iron Gland

This short (under 1 minute long), bizzare track is less of a song, but rather, a well-produced inside joke. With Tom Araya (Slayer guitarist) doing the "vocals", it supposedly lampoons Black Sabbath's "Iron Man". The only real words spoken are: "I AM IRON GLAND!!" as the instrumental piece continues and demonic laughter can be heard. I consider it to be an "intro" for the final tracks of the album...

Track 11: Hate to Feel

This song is pretty long. As I mentioned earlier, it sounds a lot like Junkhead, mainly with the instrumental and vocal styling. With a blues spirit to it, it seems like a foggy, dark representation of wishing to be no more from Layne Staley, the heroin-addicted protoganist of the album.

Track 12: Angry Chair

This is a slightly creepy song, representing Layne's emotions and fears during rehab for his addiction, but also with allusions to his troubles as a child, even going as far to refer to "The Shining" by Stephen King. The verse is a haunting, droning description of his surroundings, the pre-chorus jolts to the thoughts of Layne, and the chorus takes an ironically positive-but-creepy refusal to fix his problem anymore, because he's "lost his mind" to the addiction.

Music Video (Released 1992): This video is sort of creepy. It features Layne Staley sitting on an "angry chair" in a dark room surrounding by flashing blue-and-yellow lights, some sort of small primate, a large snake, and a creepy, shifty-eyed clay monster that keeps "changing the shape of its face", meant to represent what Layne fears to see in his own self. It was the last music video to feature Mike Starr.

Track 13: Would?

This song was earlier featured in the "Singles" soundtrack, but it really does seem more at home in this album. It's about the death of Andrew Wood, lead vocalist in Mother Love Bone, one of the earlier grunge bands of Seattle. Of course, it can also be interpreted as an epilouge to the theme of the album, as a junkie who has "gone too far to get home", and reminding us all to "try to see it once my [his] way".

Music Video (Released 1992): This music video was first a promotional video for "Singles". It features the band in a room full of black-and-white photos on the walls, performing, as well as showing clips from the film, and a promotional poster.

Well, "Dirt" truly is a great album. The singing, the lyrics, the playing, it's all completely awesome. You will hear one of the most beautiful yells from Layne Staley in a "Would?". You will be immersed into Layne's dark little world of fear and despair in "Angry Chair" and "Down in a Hole". You'll feel the anger in "Dam that River" and "God Smack", and sympathize with Cantrell's hard times in the war in "Rooster". It's depressing and dark, but that's basically the whole album, so if you don't like that kind of stuff, go buy "Facelift" instead.

I give this album a 9.5/10.
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