Release Year: 1994
There’s a lot of activity surrounding Alice in Chains these days with a new in-depth book, new footage being found of their early days, and being eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. Seeing them pop up so much lately got me in the mood for more of their music. This time I wanted to look at their third EP, which has since been named one of the best rock releases of all time and one of the best releases of 1994. But what about this EP makes it so special? How does it differ from their already stellar sophomore effort? The EP goes to places Alice in Chains hadn’t been to before.
The story goes after the band returned from their Dirt tour, they learned of their eviction from their residence after failing to pay rent. This along with Layne Staley’s drug issue, left the members feeling depressed and lonely. They channeled these feelings into music that they originally had no intention of releasing. And these feelings are painfully obvious on all of the songs. “Rotten Apple” starts with a guttural bass to set the mood before the wah-wah of the guitar comes in, but it doesn’t make the dark mood any better. There’s this great musical build up before a hypnotizing Staley comes in singing “Hey ah na na.” Everything from the apathetic lyrics to the music really gives the listener a sense of loneliness the band was feeling at the time. That same feeling is found on “Nutshell,” which is thought to be written about the singer’s frustration with lack of privacy. The most telling is “My gift of self is raped,” which makes you shudder when you hear it.
“I Stay Away” has some of the best and most intriguing instrumentation from the band. The opening verses are very soft with an acoustic guitar that has a slight country feel to it. It continues this route until the pre-chorus where things get sludgy and dirty with fierce electric guitars. During these parts, Staley draws out his singing making him sound haunting and slightly sinister. The song gets really powerful and awe inspiring when the frantic violins come in, something you wouldn’t expect from the band. It’s such a beautiful, yet sorrowful song that’s still one of their best today. Out of all the songs on the release, this one shows their musical range; they obviously knew how to do more than what was expected of them.
All of the songs continue down this path of darkness and isolation. The only upbeat track is “No Excuses,” which throws you for a loop with how bright it sounds. It begins with an upbeat, grooving drumbeat followed by really light flowing guitar. Rumored to be about Jerry Cantrell’s strained relationship with Staley, this song is one of the few optimistic moments on the album. But we’re shielded from the light once again with the country inspired “Don’t Follow.” With the opening lines “Hey, I ain’t never coming home/Hey, I’ll just wander my own road” Layne sounds vulnerable and ready to let go. It’s so mired in sadness you want to cry as Layne pushes his vocals to their full capacity.
The closing track “Swing on This” is a whole different side to the band. It begins with this jazzy bass line before that comforting dirty guitar comes in. As Layne sings about friends worrying about him, his vocals sound more soulful, which matches with the overall jazz/blues feel of the song. What’s interesting about the lyrics is how they seem to reference Layne’s drug addiction. There’s a part where he says “I’m fine/just a little skinny,” which seems to address how people began to worry about his appearance. He later talks about pushing people away and how he didn’t mean it, which suggests he knew his behavioral changes but still tried to convince people he was just fine. The song is so different from what the band was used to doing with the blend of rock, soul, and blues, but it works so well. It’s part of what makes it a stand out track on a stellar EP.
Jar of Flies earns its title as one of the best releases of 1994. It seemed Alice in Chains were flying high on their mainstream success with the reception of Dirt. In reality they were dealing with personal demons and figuring out how to keep a distant Layne Staley with the band. You can hear all the heartbreak, anger, sadness, and loneliness on all the tracks. It does a scarily good job at showing where the band’s mindset was at the time. It has some of the band’s best work on it, but it’ll make you depressed after listening to it.