Even if you were actively engaged in the Grunge era of 1991-1994, you may not remember much about this album. Sure, it contains the mega-hits, “Rooster” and “Would”, and it also charted well after its release. Some even consider this to be one of the best Grunge albums of all time, and I would have to think hard before arguing with that claim.
However, twenty years later, it hasn’t aged well due to the extremely graphic nature of most of its songs. This album is a shocking masterpiece; the musical version of movies like Se7en and Requiem for a Dream, in that you probably only want to watch them once, and then never again due to their deeply disturbing nature. Dirt is not a fun, party album; in fact, it is a horror show, vividly depicting the Hell an addict lives through every day. You would have to be able to appreciate beauty in dark places to appreciate this album. Like Se7en and Requiem for a Dream, Dirt is easy to love, but you probably will not revisit it until after a few years of emotional recovery.
Most of the songs from Dirt deal with singer Layne Staley’s drug addiction. It is graphic and honest, suggesting that his deepening descent into addiction was so obvious that there was nothing else to write about. However, not all of the songs are about drugs. The album starts with two angry, but drug-free, powerhouses. Of the twelve songs on the album, guitarist Jerry Cantrell wrote five of the lyrics and Staley wrote the rest. However, even some of Cantrell’s lyrics seem to deal with Staley’s worsening problem with addiction.
Musically, it is a masterpiece. It is a heavy Grunge album, with saturated tones and the dark-sounding drop-D tuning, and every song is masterfully crafted. One of the finest features of Alice in Chains is the vocal harmonies of Staley and Cantrell. The two sing together so well that it is no wonder that Staley rarely sings solo. Cantrell’s smooth, high harmony blends perfectly with Staley’s gritty baritone, and the two voices add so much character to the songs.
The first single, “Would?”, is the last song on the album, and is classic Alice in Chains. Whereas most bands have the lead vocalist sing the verses solo and bring harmonies in at the chorus, Alice in Chains does just the opposite. The song is haunting and brooding, almost a whisper during the verse before kicking the chorus into overdrive.
Cantrell wrote the lyrics to “Would?”, reportedly in response to the accidental overdose and death of friend and Mother Love Bone singer, Andrew Wood, (Wood, Would?—get it?). However, since it closes out an album filled with Staley’s drug-addled moans, you can imagine that they were aimed at Staley; whether in support, or in an accusatory tone, I am not sure. With lyrics like…
Know me broken by my master
So I made a big mistake, tried to see things once my way
…it is not hard to see the connection. Perhaps Cantrell is trying to tell Staley something. Either way, the song closes out the album, and seems to confirm every statement made in the previous songs.
The album begins with “Them Bones”, a driving, dirty, grungy pulse in 7/4 time featuring screams from Staley that are just as coarse as the guitars. Due to the subject matter of later songs on this album, it is easy to assume that the lyrics are about drugs and death. However, I interpret it differently; I think it is about the rising stature of the Seattle music scene and that posers and second-rate knockoffs will soon overtake the natives. Perhaps Cantrell is saying that in the end, we will all become a “big old pile of them bones”, but I do not think it is due to addiction. For example…
Dust rise right on over my time, Empty fossil of the new scene
…seems to speak to the growing popularity of the so-called Seattle scene. The nightclubs and bars had more record executives than music patrons at this time, and bands were changing their sound to fit the new fad. By late 1992, most of Seattle’s Grunge heroes were already denouncing the name “Grunge” and anything related to a Seattle scene. Their private world had been encroached upon, and they did not appreciate it. Kid of like the original San Francisco scene during the Summer of love, except grungier.
The next song, “Dam That River”, is reportedly about a fight between Cantrell and drummer Sean Kinney. The lyrics are angry and violent, with “So you couldn’t dam that river” a metaphor for holding back your trash talk.
The third song, “Rain When I Die”, is the first of the drug songs, and the first of Staley’s lyrics on the album. It is an oblique statement about trying to get clean and failing. In the lyrics, Staley speaks of a woman, and it seems as though they are trying hard to get clean. When she tries, Staley slips and she eventually walks away from him. His heart is broken, but at least he has his drugs to soothe him.
The fourth song, “Down in a Hole”, is possibly the most ambiguous song on the album. One can easily interpret it to mean drug addiction, with lyrics like…
I’ve eaten the sun so my tongue has been burned of the taste
I’d like to fly, by my wings have been so denied
It is easy to imagine that he has overindulged in his habits to the point that he can no longer break free from this life he has created.
However, since Cantrell wrote the lyrics, I imagine the song is more about losing love and feeling as though one could never love again. He writes…
Bury me softly in this womb, I give this part of me to you
…I interpret it as someone who has given everything they had to a relationship feeling lost and alone when it ends. Beautiful song, however sad it may be.
The next song, “Sickman”, is quite obviously about Staley’s addiction. I can see no other way to interpret it. It is a song filled with self-loathing and desperation. He knows that he is fucked, and may have already resigned himself to death.
I can feel the wheel, but I can’t steer
When thoughts become my biggest fear
What’s the difference, I’ll die
In this sick world of mine
Track number six, “Rooster” is probably the best known Alice in Chains song. It is probably also the best song on the album. It is the odd man out; not being about drugs or death specifically, rather, it is a tribute to Cantrell’s dad, who fought in the Vietnam War, and was nicknamed ‘The Rooster.”
The next five songs are all Staley lyrics, with the last two being written entirely by him—words and music. These are the most gruesome of the batch, and are the reason that it is so hard to listen to the album on a regular basis. I mean, they are dark!
“Junkhead” is about as in-your-face as a song can get. No hidden meanings here–no ambiguity. Staley almost seems to glorify his lifestyle, but it is more of an honest depiction of the daily life of a junkie.
Nothing better than a dealer who’s high, Be high, convince them to buy
What’s my drug of choice? Well, what have you got?
I don’t go broke, and I do it a lot
Next is the title track “Dirt.” This is the most horrifying of all. The song takes the point of view of someone so smacked-out that they no longer care about life or their friends and family. The song is about wanting to commit suicide out of revenge for how he got to this place. He clearly blames someone; an ex-lover, a family member, a friend, and he wants them to feel as badly as he does now. It’s pretty sick, and I will admit that I always pass this one over when I listen to the album, which is too bad, because the music is quite awesome!
Next is “God Smack”, which on the surface is a clear ode to heroin. Staley takes it a little deeper, though, and makes heroin his God. In the lyrics, he knows that heroin will kill him, and he even admonishes himself for trying it in the first place.
What in God’s name have you done?
Stick your arm out for some real fun
So your sickness weighs a ton
And God’s name is Smack for some
Staley knows what he has done, and now he knows that he is powerless to change it at all.
“Hate to Feel” continues the theme, but goes even deeper into Staley’s addiction. This is the first of two songs that Staley wrote entirely. Here, he takes his self-loathing to new highs. The song is about not wanting to feel anything. It is unclear if he started doing drugs to blot out some old pain, or if the drugs have made him numb and now he hates to feel anything (meaning the drugs have worn off and he needs a new hit).
Used to be curious, now the shit’s sustenance
The last of the autobiographical songs by Staley is “Angry Chair.” In this song, Staley seems to vent his anger at anything that crosses his path. He hates his addiction, but it is now all that he wants to do.
Little boy made a mistake, Pink cloud has now turned to grey
All that I want is to play, Get on your knees, time to pray
He refers to the record company waiting for the album to finish, and that he freely admits to imbibing on the job anyway.
Corporate prison we stay, I’m a dull boy, work all day
So I’m strung out anyway
He now realizes that no one can relate to what he is going through.
Loneliness is not a phase, field of pain is where I graze
Serenity is far away
This song is not about the drug itself, but the mind of the person who lives with addiction. It is about personal struggles, and the realization of what he has become.
Dirt is not exactly a concept album, but the drug songs follow a pattern from trying to clean up (Rain When I Die), to the gradual descent toward accepting one’s fate (Sickman, Angry Chair), to the eventual death of the constant user (Would?). The non-drug songs fit perfectly with the drug songs due to the tone of the music, and the aforementioned gorgeous vocal interplay between Staley and Cantrell.
I will freely admit that I only listen to a few of the songs from this album on a semi-regular basis. There are clear classics, like Would?, Rooster, Them Bones, Rain When I Die, Down in a Hole, and Angry Chair, but the darkness of the lyrical matter is too much for me these days. Back in the day, I listened to this album all the time, but I guess I like to be happier when I listen to music nowadays.
However, I will not dispute that this is a brilliant masterpiece of an album. Just don’t listen to it when you are already depressed!