December 5, 2023
Retrospective: Alice in Chains' Dirt is Still Potent at 30

On its thirtieth birthday, it’s time to ask the all-important question: is there a better grunge record than Alice in Chains’ Dirt?

Released on Columbia Records on this day in 1992 in the wake of the supermassive success of Nirvana’s Nevermind, Alice in Chains’ sophomore record is a bleak, hopeless affair driven by borderline sludgy guitars and the incredible vocal pairing of singer Layne Staley and guitarist/singer Jerry Cantrell. The guitarist tells Billboard that Alice in Chains—Cantrell, Staley, late bassist Mike Starr and drummer Sean Kinney—workshopped many of those songs on the road while touring for debut album Facelift, so there was a lot of creative energy at the time.

In the same interview with Billboard, Cantrell recalls the recording process and what it was like to work with Staley. Cantrell described the writing process of “Rain When I Die,” highlighting what made his creative partnership with the singer so special.

“We work in a really interesting way, especially lyrically and melodically. The way that Layne and I worked together, we had a pretty good partnership. We didn’t really talk about things too much, but we just filled the other half of what the other guy didn’t have. Like if I was stuck somewhere or I didn’t have an idea, Layne always had it, and if he was stuck somewhere, I always had it. It was a really cool thing we had. On that particular song, I had a really strong vocal idea and a cadence for the song, and so did he. He showed me his idea, and I showed him mine. And the weird part of it was where I had written lyrics and places to sing were the spaces and the breaths in the song for him. So I’m like, ‘Dude check it out. My line fits your gap and your line fits my gap. Let’s put ‘em together.’ We just combined them lyrically, and it was weird how well it worked. We totally did not communicate what we were writing about, but it worked together.”

Dirt is uncompromisingly heavy, blurring the lines between grunge and metal. From the dragging riff on “Junkhead” to the Staley-written pair of “Hate to Feel” and “Angry Chair” to the foot stomp of “Dam That River” and the upbeat riffing on “Sickman,” Alice in Chains expressed the genre’s sense of angst and struggles with the human condition in a different way. Whereas Nevermind has a “fuck this shit” punk attitude and Ten leans on its classic rock influences, Dirt is a focused slog that deals with hard, real subjects. “Rooster” was written about Vietnam for Cantrell’s grandfather; “Would?” is a tribute to deceased Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood; “Sickman” and “Junkhead” address addiction, a looming figure in the grunge scene and Staley’s own life. 

Much praise has been heaped on Dirt over the years and it’s all deserved. Alice in Chains’ second album is the rare example of a record that has earned its accolades and then some. One need only to cast their eyes upon the metal and rock scenes—both today and following the album’s release—to hear the influence that Alice in Chains has left in their wake with Dirt. Don’t trust any metalhead who says this album isn’t an all-timer.

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