The Classics 040

The Classics 040

Wednesday, 01 March 2023
Alice In Chains – Dirt (30th Anniversary 2LP reissue) – “Would?”

A deeper look at the grooves pressed into the 30th Anniversary 2LP reissue of Dirt by Alice In Chains. While there are plenty of deluxe reissue versions of classic albums on the market at the moment (including of Dirt, actually; there are multi-disc sets of the album which include enough 7” singles to contain all the songs on the album’s hype sticker, and then some), that Alice In Chains has also released a version of Dirt without any bells or whistles to entice potential buyers is both a statement of the quality of the music in itself as well as a statement of the physical and mental wellbeing of Layne Staley – who was one of Dirt‘s principle songwriters. There is definitely some dirt and grime in the songs here as well as splattered on them, but there has an undeniable amount of care which was put into the remixing and remastering job which was applied to the music. Simply said, heroin addiction has a habit of stripping those afflicted by it of almost everything except an unending sense of need for the drug – they’ll give anything and everything away for more of the drug, but the care with which junkies handle their drug and how they measure out the amount of it that they possess is staggering – and there is a reflection of that in this reissue.

As soon as stylus touches down on the A-side of Dirt, longtime fans will be immediately transported into the album’s dark and foreboding soundscape courtesy of the remastering job applied to “Them Bones.” There, the band utilizes grinding guitars and unrelenting drums in a way that’s a lot like many of the rock bands of the day (particular similarities can be heard in Jerry Cantrell’s guitar performance to Motley Crue, Slaughter and Skid Row), but the thing which throws Alice In Chains into a group and class all its own is Layne Staley’s vocals. From note one, Staley’s cries, vocals and lyrics all present a dramatic device which just cannot be denied; there is anguish and pain in them which was only hinted at in the songs which comprised Facelift (Alice In Chains’ debut album – released just two years before Dirt) and it arrives so completely formed here that it instantly captures listeners’ attention. Lines like, “Dust rise right on over my time/ Empty fossil of the new scene/ I feel so alone/ Gonna end up a big ol’ pile of them bones” hit hard and are startlingly affecting – but the analogue remastering for this reissue is even more striking; each part of the performance of “Them Bones” resonates brilliantly and is still able to hook listeners effortlessly.

The muscle flexed by “Them Bones” gets further exerted as “Dam That River” follows it in a rage. There, Staley makes a far stronger presentation alongside a really forceful performance by Cantrell and drummer Sean Kinney with lines like “Oh, you couldn’t dam that river/ And maybe I don’t give a damn anyway/ So you couldn’t dam that river/ And it washed me so far away”stand defiantly against the force of the instruments, but there is also an inherent frailty about them which is capable of drawing listeners in and, between those two elements, it’ll be hard for listeners to not feel a sneer growing on their collective faces by song’s end.

That same conflicted stance against the band’s elemental instrumental performance endures through the comparatively methodical pacing of “Rain When I Die,” as well. There, listeners may actually feel their pulses slow in much the same way that happens when a narcotic buzz hits and soothes a racing mind in the spaces between the notes of Cantrell’s guitar lick, and is echoed when Staley unloads lines like “Was it something I said, held against me?/ Ain’t no life on the run, slowly climbing/ Caught in ice so she stares, stares at nothing/I can help her but won’t, now she hates me,” but some real heartbreak hits with the title lyric – it’s then (as well as when the song ends and listeners realize that they’ve reached the end of the side) that listeners realize they’re hooked by what the band has hit them with.

…And then the needle lifts from the A-side of Dirt. The end of the side comes after just eleven minutes and forty seconds of music, and that brevity is genuinely jarring; it may cause listeners to wonder if pressing Dirt as a double album was a necessity, or if it was just something that Alice In Chains or Sony Music (or both) thought they could do, so they did.

The brevity of Dirt‘s A-side may leave listeners feeling uncertain or unsettled, but that works very well as it helps to inform Dirt‘s B-side beautifully. When the needle drops on the B-side of Dirt, for example, the gears shift to a far more introspective place as “Down In A Hole” opens the running, darkly. From the very first note played on Jerry Cantrell’s guitar, there’s a sense of pathos in place that is unmistakable and plays a very substantive role when Layne Staley’s voice enters the frame. As glossy as Dave Jerden’s metallic production is, there is a heart in the performance here which is completely unlike that other bands who were working at the time; it’s possible to hear a gentility and care in the performance that simply didn’t exist in the work of Alice’s peers at the time, but the band would help to establish that artistic arrangement in the work of the bands who would come after them, like Godsmack (itself an entertaining band name, in this context), Incubus, Days Of The New and Life Of Agony, among a multitude of others.

After “Down In A Hole,” Alice In Chains further fleshes out the importance of Layne Staley’s addiction to the band’s outward persona with “Sickman” (with its far more aggressive focus on more angular sounds) before finally closing the side with “Rooster” – the song which would ultimately come to be regarded as the most important and identifiable in the band’s canon, but does not directly address or identify any of the band’s members.

As “Rooster” plays here to close out the B-side of Dirt, listeners really get a sense of how Alice In Chains had come from Facelift, developmentally. Lines like, “Ain’t found a way to kill me yet/ Eyes burn with stingin’ sweat/ Seems every path leads me to nowhere” offer the near-universal sense of pathos and catharsis of a sort that none of the cuts on Facelift could muster (the best of that album was, “Mind of destructive taste/ I choose to stroll amongst the waste/ It was your heart, lost in the dark/ Call off the chase” from “Sea Of Sorrow”) and that shift here – particularly given the ground which had already been covered on the first LP of this set – proves to be an incredibly welcome one. Listeners will find that, reissued or not, it’s easy to just dive headlong into the first chorus of “Rooster” without question or restraint and feel like some kind of redemption may indeed be possible.

“Rooster” slides easily along with the help of Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell’s dual vocals, and the sense of any hard stops or starts as well as a lack of any breakout guitar performances lets the cathartic push be consistent all the way through its play. In that way too, “Rooster” is an ideal cut for the close of Dirt‘s B-side, because the gentility of it will have listeners ready to transition onto another vinyl plate without any additional effort made at all.

…And, as smoothly as “Rooster” closed the B-side of Dirt, “Junkhead” seems intent on exemplifying all the aspects of the record that listeners find off-putting; namely the tarnished color of glam metal and, of course, heroin. But not only that, Jerry Cantrell’s almost careless guitar work around the beat in the song and Layne Staley’s cavalier attitude (exemplified by lines like, “What’s your drug of choice/ Well, what have you got/ I don’t go broke/ And I do it a lot”) feel intentionally off-putting – as though the band doesn’t want to issue with a moral treatise on the matter, so Staley presents the song in a manner that is almost impossible to “like.”

The title track answers that push against finding an easy way into the music on the B-side of Dirt by sardonically snarling its way through (Staley’s opening lyrics, “I have never felt such frustration/ Or lack of self-control/ I want you to kill me/ And dig me under/ I want to live no more” are impossible to duck around or misinterpret) before stripping all of the glossy production on the album away and leaving Staley’s habits bare before creating a tempestuous sonic swirl with a wah pedal to make the movement of “Godsmack” feel like a dramatic movement in spite of it not being a spectacle (as it might have been – were Dirt a concept album). On “Godsmack,” Alice In Chains sends chills up listeners’ collective spines as Sean Kinney ever-so-slightly tweaks the rhythm pattern between the verses and choruses to leave the music feeling off-balance but never off-time, which proves to be a very unsettling sensation. Staley’s voice substantiates that impression too as it veers from “unsettling whimper” in the verses to “unbridled howl” during the song’s choruses, but there’s an appreciation to be found in the song’s mania; standing back from it, the fury in “Godsmack” is fantastic – but listeners understand not to get too close as it plays, and won’t be able to stop themselves from heaving a sigh of relief as the unlisted “Iron Gland” explodes one last time to close the C-side of the album.

Again (sorry, no pun intended, in the context of Alice In Chains), after the chills manifested by the C-side of this Dirt reissue have subsided, the D-side of Dirt unceremoniously one-times listeners across the face with the dark, glammy metal of “Hate To Feel” as needle catches groove. There, Jerry Cantrell launches the song in about as “hair metal” a tone as possible as the notes from his guitar descend before crashing to meet the rest of the band in a very blues-rock tone. Staley whimpers to announce his presence too, and the underlying tone feel definitely like one of closure as the song swaggers to start (complete with lyrics about not being able to see straight), but then the song does an immediate aboutface with the words, “What the fuck.” That’s where Alice In Chains removes all doubt that nothing is right in this running; Cantrell’s guitar line instantly gets more staccato in structure, mirrored by Staley’s vocal, and the overall movement of the song is understandably worrisome – a fact furthered when the song’s next movement feels as though it’s slithering along, ominously. As the song progresses, there is a certain amount of repetition in the structure because that’s just how a pop song works but, unlike the average pop song, “Hate To Feel” gets a few shades darker every pass through until the whole thing collapses violently to a close – it’s actually a spectacular conclusion. After that, “Angry Chair” follows with another seething, halting exercise which always stands out better on the AIC compilation albums on which it appears than it does on Dirt [“Angry Chair” is a great song which would be better served appearing earlier on Dirt than it does –ed], before the side offers one more spectacular explosion to close the running with “Would?”

To this day, now thirty years after the album’s original release – “Would?” remains simultaneously the best and the most unlikely single for Dirt, and that it closes the album also cements the song’s status. From note one, listener may actually be able to feel their pupils dilate as Mike Starr’s bass rolls out a thick, deep and muddy low end. Some electric whines of guitar fall on top early on, and the rhythm figure joins in quickly too – it’s as though the band already knows how bright the electricity in “Would?” shines, and simply cannot wait to show it off. The lyrics break in quickly too – but the lyrics, in this case, are obviously far less important than the vibe they present (thirty years in, I’m still unclear on what, “Know me broken by my master/ Teach thee on child of love hereafter” is intended to articulate,” but I know it’s far less important to the song than “Into the flood again/ Same old trip it was back then/ So I made a big mistake/ Try to see it once my way,” the chorus, is – and that also rings much like a ballad of beautiful words), they just line up to be found as quickly as possible – in perfect contrast to the rest of the lyrical content in the song. The result proves to be the masterclass in lyricism and performance that no one could ever expect of a band on just their sophomore full-length album, but it does play just that well and, when the song draws to a close with minor seventh and suspended chords seeming to state (not just imply) that the song is coming undone, listeners may feel their pulses begin to race sympathetically with the performance. In the moment when the song closes the gates on the album with the words, “If I would, could you,” presented like a manic question, listeners may feel one last breath escape their lips, sympathetically. For this critic, that still happens thirty years after the fact, without question.

Looking back at it, I confess that I over-wrote in this review (this draft is two thousand words). Even so though, I feel like noting that in this context makes an important point; unlike other pressings of modern reissues, the copy of Dirt that I reviewed featured no music which was not originally found on the album – this reissue exists as the album always has; with no bells and no whistles included in hopes of trying to boost sales, this thirtieth anniversary pressing of Dirt presents a classic album as it should be heard. [Bill Adams]


Further Reading:
Ground Control Magazine – Alice In Chains [Discography review] Part One
Ground Control Magazine – Alice In Chains [Discography review] Part Two
Vinyl Vlog 217 – Alice In Chains – Record Store Day 2×7’’ set – [Column]
Vinyl Vlog 181 – Alice In Chains – Live Facelift EP – [Column]

The 30th Anniversary 2LP Edition of Dirt is out now. Buy it here, on Amazon.

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