Given Alice in Chains’ gaudily self-destructive modus operandi in their salad days, it makes perfect sense to me that today, along with half of the rest of the industry, they would “craft” songs that essentially have a chorus but no verse (Pharrell, “Happy,” et. al.), and attempt to go on without their singer like a (rotten) Blind Melon.
Alice in Chains were always vaudeville. They took the punk ethos of exaggeratedly world-bashing, self-immolating lyrics and applied them to deep, indulgent blues riffs a la “grunge,” weaving a sound adornment that the junkie, or just the pi**ed off pizza cook after work, could sink into holistically, for five minutes at a time (junkies probably all listen to Ravi Shankar, and stuff). They were showmen of the psychotic, suicidal, junkie.
And then, in 1995, it was we the public’s turn to act obnoxious, casting off the self-titled album as “poppy,” probably because it didn’t have as much insane suicidal sh** in it. But it was, for what it’s worth, an exercise in democracy, Jerry Cantrell taking the baton in singing (“Grind”), and overall songwriting itself (“Over Now”), each to full effect. No other band was doing this exact thing better in 1995. Alice in Chains even sounded more determined as Soundgarden, who admittedly might have matched them in the department of catchy hooks.
And apparently at this time they’re not even doing shows: “Alice in Chains resurfaced on April 10, 1996 to perform their first concert in two and a half years for MTV Unplugged, a program featuring all-acoustic set lists.” On Alice in Chains, they sound thoroughly mired in misery, the type of despair and hopelessness that’s so insurmountable there’s no way out of it but pathological genuineness.
So why didn’t fans cotton on to the album more? It’s clearly better than Dirt, a distortion-fest for the meshing of frat party and junkie chase. Right away the depth in lyrics is noticeable: “So you play the part / So you love the game / And in truth your lies become one and same.” This does albeit bear some semblance to Layne Staley’s old spiny quips on Dirt: “Stare at me with empty eyes and point your words at me / Mirror on the wall will show you what you’re scared to see,” but in the event that Staley is actually singing about himself here, in both cases, the latter in “Grind” plays more like a layered product of artistic development, and less like the lead-in to a fist fight outside a high school prom.
But I’ve never met a “hard-core” Chains fan who will even mention the self-titled album, let alone champion it. This one dude even grew silent and looked down when I brought it up. Me, I was enthralled. “Your weapon is guilt,” in the zestily titled “Sludge Factory” (included on Unplugged), is possibly the weirdest line of all time. Only two bands used to rock me harder: Queens of the Stone Age and Nine Inch Nails. “Again” I’ve heard used in NFL sound bytes (possibly chosen by Joe Buck, but definitely after Staley’s death). We all know about “Over Now,” the subject matter, and the song. “So Close” is a full-ignition speed ride with laughter in the background at the end. “Shame in You” is a pain-sodden ballad worthy of standing next to Pearl Jam’s “Better Man” (though as usual, pointed inward), complete with more compelling but head-scratching Layne Staley lyrics: “You’ll find a place for your shame / So you can deal with this thing unreal / No one made you feel any hurt.”
The album is even sequenced well, which brings me to the surreal, crawling “Frogs,” the second to last track on the album and the last Staley number. It’s noteworthy automatically, because it would be the final Layne Staley-penned studio album offering, stamped and shipped, like Nirvana’s “All Apologies.” The themes presented lyrically in “Frogs” are abandoned friendship, rage, and death. The genuineness is undeniable, the song spreading out through eight odd minutes. I can’t help but think that maybe if Staley and company wouldn’t have been so over-the-top and kitschy in the middle school-ish, fu** the world junkie-dom in their early days, the more might have shed more acclaim on to their final album, and Layne Staley might have figured out this whole closure, self-validation, life thing.