Dirt is Alice in Chains’ major artistic statement and the closest they ever came to recording a flat-out masterpiece. It’s a primal, sickening howl from the depths of Layne Staley’s heroin addiction, and one of the most harrowing concept albums ever recorded. Not every song on Dirt is explicitly about heroin, but Jerry Cantrell’s solo-written contributions (nearly half the album) effectively maintain the thematic coherence — nearly every song is imbued with the morbidity, self-disgust, and/or resignation of a self-aware yet powerless addict. Cantrell’s technically limited but inventive guitar work is by turns explosive, textured, and queasily disorienting, keeping the listener off balance with atonal riffs and off-kilter time signatures. Staley’s stark confessional lyrics are similarly effective, and consistently miserable.
Sometimes he’s just numb and apathetic, totally desensitized to the outside world; sometimes his self-justifications betray a shockingly casual amorality; his moments of self-recognition are permeated by despair and suicidal self-loathing. Even given its subject matter, Dirt is monstrously bleak, closely resembling the cracked, haunted landscape of its cover art. The album holds out little hope for its protagonists (aside from the much-needed survival story of “Rooster,” a tribute to Cantrell’s Vietnam-vet father), but in the end, it’s redeemed by the honesty of its self-revelation and the sharp focus of its music. [Some versions of Dirt feature “Down in a Hole” as the next-to-last track rather than the fourth.]