How Alice In Chains’ Jerry Cantrell Became One Of Rock’s Greatest Lyricists

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One of the easily identified guitarists of the 90’s was Jerry Cantrell. Pulling from a wide array of influences, ranging from classic rock to heavy metal to punk rock, his guitar work defined the sound of Alice in Chains. Wielding his G&L Rampage like a weapon of sonic destruction, Cantrell’s use of odd time signatures, blues-inspired riffs soaked in wah-wah and fiery, flashy pentatonic runs were just as important to the sound of the band as was late lead singer Layne Staley. An often overlooked element just as important to their success were the brutally honest, self-referential lyrics of Jerry Cantrell, who was, in fact, the group’s principal lyricist.

Alice in Chains often walked the fine line between metal and alternative. They also switched gears seamlessly from brutal/in your face Grunge to softer, quieter acoustic-based works. You can say it’s like the two sides to the coin that is Alice in Chains. Interestingly enough, a lot of the softer Alice songs feature quite impressive guitar work by Jerry Cantrell. In fact, while being the main song-writer in Alice in Chains, the argument can be made Cantrell is at his best on the mellower material the band has produced. Here are five of the best songs written by Jerry Cantrell, showing the softer side of Alice in Chains as well as some of his greatest lyrics.

Over Now

Serving as the last song on 1995’s Alice in Chains, “Over Now” plays as a kind of cruel inside joke. Had Alice not reunited in 2005 with new lead singer William DuVall, this would have been the final song on their final album. And honestly, it would have been kind of fitting. By the time 1995 came around, amidst rumors of addiction and infighting, it seemed that the days were numbered for Alice in Chains. “Over Now” was almost acknowledging that. Despite the upbeat, acoustic guitar led music, the lyrics speak of getting to the end of the road and while being okay with that, also being surprised to have made it there. Like a lot of their songs that led themselves to acoustic renditions, the band performed “Over Now” at the 1996 Unplugged show for MTV.

Best Lyric: “We Pay Our Debt Sometime.”

Brother

In 1992, in-between their first and second full length studio albums, Alice in Chains snuck in Sap. A sonic left turn from their debut, Facelift, here the Seattle quartet went quiet. Focusing less on wailing vocals and hard rock and more on soft melodies and folk inspired acoustic work, Sap showed just how much sonic range Alice in Chains truly had. On “Brother”, Alice is joined by Heart’s Ann Wilson, who lends her lush vocals to the song’s chorus. The lyrics on “Brother” paint an interesting picture of longing and despair but like many Alice songs, come off sounding more upbeat than they really are. Featuring a great, bluesy Jerry Cantrell guitar solo, “Brother” may not have the immediacy of fellow Sap-track “Got Me Wrong,” but it’s no less of a song.

Best Lyric: Pictures in a box at home. Yellowing and green with mold. So I can barely see your face. Wonder how that color tastes.

Down In A Hole

One of the biggest songs of the band’s career, “Down In A Hole” is a typical Alice in Chains “ballad.” It may be soft, but it is still crushing. The song’s soft intro lays the foundation for when what is to follow. You can go on and on about the musicianship on this track from 1992’s Dirt, but the real star of the show here are Jerry Cantrell’s heartfelt, emotionally gut-wrenching lyrics and the way they are sang by Cantrell and lead singer Layne Staley. A driving force in the success of early Alice in Chains was the ability for Cantrell and Staley to blend their voices together, harmonizing with one another to create this epic powerhouse of a duo. Songs like “No Excuses” and “Would?” show their ability to do this to great success but “Down In A Hole” is the absolute perfection. Time and time again, Jerry Cantrell has pulled on feelings of despair and loss for inspiration in his lyrics and here is no exception. The theme of death pours all over this song. The beautiful display of the vocals helps to make the song seem less sad but even so, it’s hard not to feel the emotion in this classic track.

Best Lyric: Down in a hole and they’ve put all the stones in their place. I’ve eaten the sun so my tongue has been burned of the taste.

Voices

For the band’s 2013 album, the awesomely titled The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, Alice in Chains came out of the gate strong with the punishing “Hollow” and “Stone” as the first two singles. But it was with “Voices” the third single from the album that we got some truly vintage Alice, and vintage Cantrell. Sounding as if it could have come right of a mid-90’s Alice release, “Voices” has it all. The Ovation Acoustic guitar (a favorite by Jerry Cantrell) and Cantrell leading the way vocally along with Willam DuVall. Cantrell’s voice only seems to have gotten stronger as the years have gone by. Underneath it all is the pulsating rhythm section of bassist Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney. You can’t help but sway with “Voices.” Kinney’s drum work hypnotizes you and pushes you forward with the song. A truly great late era classic from Jerry and the boys; and straight up hit, peaking at number 3 on the Modern Rock Chart.

Best Lyric: I’ve been told, dreaming’s free. Think I’ll go back to sleep.

Don’t Follow

“Don’t Follow” represents the absolute pinnacle of the softer side of Alice in Chains. Almost like two songs in one, separated by a harmonica solo of all things, Jerry Cantrell leads the melancholy first half while Layne Staley, in all his angst-ridden glory, belts out the song’s second half. 1994’s “Jar of Flies” EP only contained seven songs, but those seven songs left an impression. Regarded among the band’s finest work, the acoustic based collection of songs showed all sides of Alice in Chains. Sung as a cautionary tale of sorts, Cantrell spends his verses speaking as a man wandering aimlessly, full of confusion and discontent to where life has taken him. It’s when Layne Staley bursts in later in the song that he reaffirms the fallout of being gone and giving up everything. Perhaps a metaphor for life of the road as a musician or maybe not that at all, “Don’t Follow” does what all songs should aim to; evoke emotions, tell a story and leave the listener wanting more. One of Cantrell’s absolute masterpieces, it’s hard to ask for more from the man and his band.

Best Lyric: Hey you, you’re livin’ life full throttle. Hey you, pass me down that bottle.

  • Rizz

    I loved this article and I love this band. Bravo. More.

  • JoelS

    Wish they’d start performing Over Now live again.

  • Bram

    Jerry Cantrell is immensely underrated. Awesome band and awesome article.

  • dakotablue

    People assume Layne was the primary songwriter because he was, lyrics-wise. Check the song credits. Jerry wrote some good ones too but the majority of lyrics were written by Layne when he was around, just as almost all the music was written by Jerry. Jer had to step it up lyrically after Layne died.

    • Bella Corday

      Up until Dirt Jerry was the primary lyricist, from Dirt onward Layne
      picked up the pace. They are pretty evenly split on songwriting Jerry-25, Layne- 26 and a couple of those were shared credit. My point was Layne gets credit for writing songs he did not write. Down in a Hole, for example. Everyone automatically assumes he wrote it. That one was all Jerry. Just because a man sings a song and pours a hell of a lot of emotion into it does not mean he wrote it. But is does mean he made it his on an emotional level.

  • dakotablue

    ^ this

  • Bella Corday

    I agree but the article was about Jerry so I was letting him have his moment. Truthfully Layne was more willing to let us get a look at the hell he had created for himself and therefore created something both beautiful and horrifying.

  • Katie

    Yes, let’s pray not.

  • Katie

    Of course not, but at least we get to still hear Jerry, Mike and Sean play.
    Better than a vast nothing after Layne’s tragic demise.

  • Katie

    Wonderful article… thank you so much. 🙂

    And I agree about *Voices* – “I’ve been told, dreaming’s free. Think I’ll go back to sleep…”

    But for me – for *Don’t Follow* it is and always will be this transition (because it’s Layne’s soul):

    Oooh, forgot my woman, lost my friends – things I’d done and where I’ve been
    Sleep in sweat the mirrors cold, and see my face it’s growin’ old…
    Scared to death no reason why – do whatever to get me by,
    Think about the things I said – – read the page it’s cold and dead
    And take me home, Yeah… take me home

  • cpvon

    Jerry Cantrell is my hero.
    Degradation Trip is my favorite album ever. I wish it were available on vinyl.