Release Year: 1992
If you were asked to name one of the best albums of the 90s this would be on the list. Though this was the band’s second release, it’s the one that made them grunge superstars. Not only is it filled with hit songs that defined the era, it finds the band going in a darker, bleaker direction. The songs touch on themes of death, anger, depression, and drug abuse, which is eerie considering what frontman Layne Staley was going through at the time. 23 years later it still sounds as brutal, heavy, and haunting as before.
“Them Bones” opens the album on a heavy note with a rough, sludgy riff that oozes throughout the song. Staley’s unmistakable wails open up the track before he starts singing. Right away we’re hit in the face with the dark themes as he sings “I feel so alone, gonna end up a/Big ole pile of them bones.” Dealing with the topic of death, it’s says no matter what we do we all end up as bones in the end. “Dam that River” speeds things up with a driving guitar riff that isn’t as heavy as the rest of the album. While it’s a good song, it doesn’t stand out musically or lyrically compared to the rest of the record.
What really captured me was how fucking dark this album is both in terms of the music and the lyrics. “Sickman” has this upbeat, chugging rhythm which goes against the ambiguous, bleak lyrics. It gets down right creepy during the bridge when random voices and eerie laughter is heard over Staley’s singing, like ghosts somehow got in the recording booth. “Rooster” is based on Jerry Cantrell’s father in the Vietnam war and provides a disturbing account on how you’re never sure you’re gonna make it another day when you’re in battle. “Junkhead,” “Hate to Feel,” and “Godsmack” are all about drug use. The second song is about Staley’s drug use, which he blames on his father. It’s eerie to hear him sing things like “You can’t understand a user’s mind/But try, with your books and degrees/If you let yourself go and opened your mind/I’ll bet you’d be doing like me/And it ain’t so bad.” At the time of recording, the singer resumed his impairing drug habit, which unfortunately caused his death in 2002. It’s songs like these where it feels like you’re trapped in his mind and crawling to get out.
The ballad “Down in the Hole” stands out musically because it uses a soft acoustic guitar to create this mellow, yet somber mood. It even finds Staley crooning during the opening, sounding wounded and hurt. Written by Cantrell, the song is dedicated to his “long-time love” and how it’s difficult to dedicate yourself to a long term relationship. There are some gut wrenching lyrics here that hit you like a bullet, such as “I’d like to fly/but my wings have been so denied” or “Down in a hole/I don’t know if I can be saved/See my heart I decorate it/like a grave.” Something about those lines are really powerful and emotionally charged; this is someone who wants to be free and has given up. These also add to the dark, haunting mood of the entire album.
“Angry Chair” is one of their most popular songs and still holds up years later. It starts with this resonating riff giving off a eerie feeling of isolation. Just as with many of the songs here, this one has its share of bleak lyrics with my favorite being “Saw my reflection and cried.” Something about that image is really creepy, like he doesn’t know who he is anymore. But some of the most fucked up lyrics are found on the title track. There are several references to suicide with the most poignant being “I want to taste/a dirty stinging pistol/In my mouth/on my tongue.” When I heard this, I had to take a step back and go whoa. Shit just got really heavy. Lyrics like these are part of what makes the album so memorable.
Years after its release, this remains Alice in Chains’ essential album. During a time when grunge bands were as common as the flu, Layne Staley and crew separated themselves from the crowd thanks to their provocative lyrics and intense music. The songs are raw, honest, and sometimes disturbing. They put you inside the claustrophobic mind of Staley, who was dealing with drug addiction yet again. Based on the lyrics alone, it’s not a nice place to be. But it’s part of what makes the album so good. It puts you in that mindset and takes you on a dark journey. Some haunting masterpieces came out in the 90s and this is one of them.