Reflections on Alice in Chains’ last studio album with Layne Staley
It was mid-1995, and Alice in Chains was in the studio, trying to finish their eponymous third album.
It was a troubled time for the band. Lead singer Layne Staley’s drug addiction had curtailed the group’s touring, and a stint in rehab hadn’t freed thr frontman from its grip. The sessions were a long haul; “hours and hours of waiting for Layne to come out of the bathroom,” the band’s manager, Susan Silver, later told author Greg Prato. Bassist Mike Inez concurred, telling Prato, “That was definitely one of the hardest records I’ve ever had to work on.”
Then some reps from the band’s record label telephoned Layne to offer their congratulations: Above, an album by Staley’s side project band Mad Season, released earlier in the year, had just gone gold. But no sooner had the good news been delivered, than the reps dropped the hammer: “Oh yeah, by the way, you have nine days to get your record done.” Well, at least the admonishment provided some lyrical inspiration. “Call me up congratulations,” Layne would sneer in “Sludge Factory.” “Ain’t the real why/There’s no pressure besides brilliance/Let’s say by day nine.”
VIDEO: Alice In Chains perform “Sludge Factory” on MTV Unplugged
Needless to say, the sessions ran on for longer than nine days, the label later threatening to pull the plug completely if the band didn’t step up work. Nor was the Layne the only band member with substance issues, a darkness that permeated the both the sessions and the music; “It’s a way more malicious and brutal album than Dirt was,” drummer Sean Kinney told author Mark Yarm.
And yet, the self-titled album also stands as a testament to the band’s persistence. With the tape recorders constantly rolling throughout the sessions, catching anything the band might work on, however briefly, they managed to fill around 70 rolls of two-inch tape. This was whittled down to a taut 12 tracks, producing an album without an excess of fat anywhere; it’s all sinew, bone, and gristle.
“Grind” gives the album a powerful start, with its steady, pounding tempo, insinuating guitar line, and the dissonant interplay between Staley’s and guitarist Jerry Cantrell’s vocals — the trademark Alice in Chains sound that gave their music its loopy, swirling feel. It’s one of three songs with lyrics by Cantrell, each evincing a dark world view. “When I’m down and blue/rather be me than you” is the stark observation in the otherwise pretty and melodic “Heaven Beside You.” “Over Now,” which closes the album, begins with a spooky rendition of “Taps,” then turns into a moderate tempo kiss off, coming to the sobering conclusion, “When it’s all worn out/I’d rather go without.”
VIDEO: Alice In Chains “Grind”
Staley’s lyrics are more stream-of-consciousness, making them more enigmatic and/or disturbing. Check out the lyrical flow of “Head Creeps,” with its churning, roiling music and cryptic lyrics, disturbing but also mesmerizing. “God Am” is one of the bleaker prayers you’ll ever hear offered up to the Almighty (“Dear God, how you been then?/I’m not fine, fuck pretending”). “Sludge Factory” is steeped in the blues, and streaked with venom. The somber, slower “Shame In You” is a song of regret from a lost soul who’s too weary to make an effort to change his circumstances.
It’s a raw, uncompromising piece of work. Cantrell later recalled the album as being “the sound of a band falling apart”; an apt description. At its most basic, Alice in Chains is an record wrapped in pain and depression. But for all that, it remains compelling; there’s more a sense of resignation, a defiance in the face of great odds, than of abject despair. Though the band members have each talked about the difficulties of making the album, they all agree it’s one of their strongest works.
Their fans thought so too; the album debuted at the top of the Billboard charts on its release in November 1995. But it was the last full studio statement by the band, and the years ahead would be grim; the end of touring in 1996, the end of recording in 1998, and Staley’s death in 2002.
But there’s a lasting resilience to this record; like the three-legged dog on the cover, the band might’ve been broken, but they were, for moment, still standing.