The Mount Rushmore of grunge is universally recognized as being made up of Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. To debate would be absurd, as those four were the most popular, sold the most music and sprouted out of early ‘90s Seattle, ground zero of the movement. Upon closer examination though, a bit of an aberration would be AIC, whose landmark sophomore release Dirt turned 30 this week.
Originally shoehorned in with a then struggling heavy metal genre based on their 1990 debut Facelift and hit single “Man in the Box,” it would be the second Alice in Chains effort which proved to be the deepest, darkest and most haunting of the era. It also separated them as hard rockers from the suddenly antiquated metal pack while shining a light on just how bleak the so-called “Seattle scene” really was, festering in a stew of drug addiction and rain-soaked depression.
The year prior to Dirt landing on shelves, Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam released their breakthrough LPs in Nevermind, Badmotorfinger and Ten respectively. Incredibly, those three all came out within a six-week period from late August to early October 1991. And while outliers like Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, L7 and other grunge noisemakers were getting mainstream recognition, none of them had an explosive impact.
The seeds for the success of Dirt were sown when the soundtrack to the Cameron Crowe film Singles came out in early summer 1992, more than three months before the movie hit theaters. Stuffed to the gills primarily with artists from Seattle, it was like a grunge mixtape, one that opened with Alice in Chains’ “Would?” The song was the only single from the soundtrack, and the video was fast-tracked into heavy rotation on MTV. It was no surprise then when, come its in-store date of Sept. 29, Dirt bowed at No. 6 on the Billboard charts and became the group’s biggest selling record.
Dirt remains the most open and unflinching musical depiction of heroin addiction and the loneliness, despair and misery that comes along with it in hard rock. The dual harmonies of frontman Layne Staley and guitarist, singer and main songwriter Jerry Cantrell were like nothing else in the grunge period and only added to brutish candor of the source material, spilling forth the sorrow, regret and defiance that sometimes churns all at once in the junkie’s brain. Songs like “Hate to Feel,” “Sickman” “Junkhead” and “Godsmack” are almost uncomfortably harsh in their portrayal of drug dependence.
And when the lyrical content wasn’t a not-so-thinly veiled reference to the needle and the damage being done, it remained less than cheery. Cantrell’s dedication to his Vietnam veteran father, “Rooster”, addresses coming home from the war only to find a country where he was looked upon as anything but a hero and an internal emptiness that fractured the relationship with his family.
Perhaps it was the honesty that struck a chord with listeners, but it just as easily could’ve been the scorching guitar riffs and masterfully sludgy bottom end on the tracks “Them Bones,” “Dam That River” and the menacing “Angry Chair.” Either way, the bombast of Dirt is still looked at as one of the musical highlights of the time. Deservedly, the record is being celebrated with a remastered anniversary edition on double vinyl for the first time, available in several variants via Columbia Records and Legacy Recordings.
The 30th anniversary 2LP 12″ black vinyl edition of Dirt can be found wherever vinyl is sold. Walmart is offering customers an exclusive apple red variant pressing. And if you feel like importing something special, there’s a European version on opaque yellow vinyl available.
Then there’s the harder to find editions.
Alice In Chains have released an exclusive translucent orange variant of the 2LP 12″ vinyl direct-to-consumer which sold out in pre-orders. Limited to just 2000 copies, it was going for upwards of $200 at press time but could be found for as low as $85 on the secondary markets.
The exclusive translucent orange pressing of Dirt is also a component in the “Dirt Super Deluxe Package,” which comes with a host of extras and is being sold only through shop.aliceinchains.com. The set includes is a resin figurine custom sculpture modeled after the girl from the album cover as a vinyl topper and magnet, four show posters, a 24″ square poster featuring the album cover and band photo and four reimagined Dirt album cover prints.
Additionally, the super deluxe edition comes with a Dirt hardcover book with never-before-seen photos, a compact disc with remastered audio, and the album’s five 7″ vinyl singles: “Them Bones,” “Down in a Hole,” “Rooster,” “Angry Chair” and “Would?” Each of the singles has been released with a music video, all previously up-rezzed to high-definition. The “Dirt Super Deluxe Package” sells for $275 and is limited to 3000 copies.
Finally, the pop culture collectible masterminds at Funko have put together a Deluxe Pop! Album! featuring each of the band members as Pop! figures and the album cover art. Packaged together in a protective hard case, it can be hung on a wall or placed on a shelf. Along with Cantrell and Staley, included are drummer Sean Kinney and the late Mike Starr, original bassist for the band. Like most Funko Pop! figures, they are approximately 4-inches tall.
A version of this article appears in this week’s print and online editions of my syndicated Rock Music Menu column under the title “Alice in Chains ‘Dirt,’ the darkest album of the grunge era, turns 30.”