Albums Revisited: Alice in Chains ‘Facelift’ Turns 25
On August 21st, 2015, Alice in Chains’ début album ‘Facelift‘ celebrates its 25th anniversary. Good god. Really? I feel old.
It’s interesting to look back on ‘Facelift’ and see just how important it was in the scheme of 90’s alternative music. Pre-dating Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’, it helped establish Seattle’s 90’s Grunge movement beyond a local scene and into a worldwide phenomenon.
But Alice in Chains were always a weird fit for Grunge. While they shared the scene’s sonic signatures (low tunings, odd-time signatures), they actually began as a glam metal act (their early moniker spelled Alice N’Chains), and it was their mix of hard rock polish with rain-soaked gloom that made them so distinctive.
And with help from producer Dave Jerden (who also produced Jane’s Addiction’s ‘Ritual De Lo Habitual’, also celebrating its 25th anniversary this week), they crafted an album that cuts through a wide cross-section of alternative and metal music.
As a result ‘Facelift’ skirts the lines between Cure levels of dismal atmosphere, the anthemic crunch of The Cult and Black Sabbath sludge.
The kickoff track, ‘We Die Young’ (a holdover from a promo EP) easily informed how much the group had evolved from their hair band beginnings: guitarist Jerry Cantrell’s lumbering de-tuned riff sounded miles away from upbeat Sunset Strip sleaze rock. And vocalist Layne Staley’s serrated, haunted wail not only made glam metal falsetto singers look silly, but spawned countless imitators in the process.
But ‘Facelift’ had a slow road to success. It wasn’t until a year later, that they achieved their breakout hit with ‘Man In The Box.’ In addition to Cantrell’s iconic Talk-Box riff it showed off Staley and Cantrell’s dual part harmonies, a notable trait that separated them from their contemporaries.
There is a sense of dread to that song that informs the entire album. Alice In Chains weren’t a party band with rough edges like Guns N’Roses, or fueled by political disillusionment like Metallica. For Alice, it was all about self-punishing introspection.
This is borne out in ‘Love, Hate Love’, one of the band’s finest songs. Cantrell’s eerie flanged guitar and Staley’s horror show vocals highlight lyrics that could be symbolic of a doomed relationship, or the tale of a murderer:
Lost inside my sick head
I live for you but I’m, I’m not alive
Take my hands before I kill
I still love you but I still burn, burn
It’s tempting when talking about ‘Facelift’ (and Alice in Chains in general) to focus on the creative nucleus of Staley and Cantrell. But their rhythm section is vitally important: bassist Mike Starr and Sean Kinney created seasick tempos that had a graceful swagger. Just check out the whip-crack swing from ‘It Ain’t Like That.’ The groove’s magnetic pull is inescapable.
This is even more impressive knowing that Kinney played most of ‘Facelift’ with a broken hand. It seemed everything about Alice evolved from some aspect of pain.
Indeed, there are no feel-good songs on ‘Facelift.’ Even the more up-tempo southern rock flavored ‘Sunshine’ (another track with amazing dual harmonies) is also laced with tragedy, written by Cantrell about his mother’s death.
‘Facelift’ starts off so strongly, that it’s a shame it gets tonally uneven towards the end. The RHCP funk-rock of ‘I Know Something About You’ seems out-of-place, while the more conventional blues rock and machismo lyrics of ‘Real Thing’ feels more like filler than an essential track.
This unevenness would of course be corrected on their 1992 sophomore effort ‘Dirt’, one of the darkest and unforgiving rock albums of all time. But ‘Facelift’ still stands up as an essential album of the 90’s.
Staley and Starr are gone, and Cantrell and Kinney soldier on with Alice in Chains 2.0. But their début album reminds us that before becoming world-famous rock stars crippled by addiction, they were just four kids from Seattle who wanted to rock. And on ‘Facelift’, that hunger and purity still remains intact.