After Layne’s Mad Season side project, Alice in Chains came back with this much-anticipated album, the one with the sad three legged dog on the cover. And though I’ll readily admit that these guys are one of my all time favorite bands, I must also admit that it took awhile for this album to sink in, and that I initially regarded it as a disappointment. That’s because the hooks aren’t as ready made, nor do they sink in as deeply as on Dirt, an album that I consider to be an absolute masterpiece. Drug references again invade the lyrics, which is a little tiring at this point, but they say to “write about what you know,” and lines like “you’d be well advised not to plan my funeral before the body dies” would prove eerily prophetic.
On a more positive note, the band continues to expand their sound, as a middle ground between the ultra heavy Dirt and the more melodic Jar Of Flies appears to have been reached, though they generally lean toward the heavy side of things. The songwriting chores are also more evenly split up than in the past where Cantrell had dominated the songwriting credits, while Cantrell sings lead on a few songs rather than Staley, who writes the vast majority of the lyrics. “Grind,” “Heaven Beside You” and “Again” were the fine radio tracks, but also excellent are the bludgeoning “Head Creeps” and the evocative sing along “Shame In You.” “Nothin’ Song” likewise demonstrates the band’s ability to be both catchy and weird (in a good way), while intense mid-tempo tracks such as the rocking atheist anthem “God Am” and the soulful finale “Over Now” (my personal favorite) showcase the band’s haunting harmonies and Cantrell’s searing guitar work.
True, some of these songs occasionally wallow in their own sludge, and several tracks, most notably (the still good) “Sludge Factory” and “Frogs,” could use a little trimming. Also, perhaps there are few instantly identifiable classics along the lines of “Man In The Box,” “Nutshell,” “Rooster,” and “Would?,” but perseverance will reward listeners with yet another highly satisfying and in my opinion quite underrated album.