Edited by Brett Buchanan
The grunge and alternative music explosion of the 90’s provided no shortage of iconic frontmen. From Nirvana to Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots, it was a great time for rock and roll singers. Depending on your personal taste, you could make an argument for any of them being the best, but of course, there is Layne Staley. The original lead singer of Alice In Chains etched out his own unique corner in the world of the grunge 90’s.
Believe it or not, 2017 marks the fifteenth anniversary of Staley’s tragic, untimely passing. His voice is instantly recognizable. During the AIC’s initial run, Staley could bring fans to their knees with his vocal ability. Everything about his delivery was unique. He could carry notes with abrasive aggression for days, with what seemed like minimal effort. Haunting, vulnerable, and at times almost pleading, his vocal delivery and his way of phrasing has been copied endlessly in the days since Dirt (I’m looking at you Godsmack). You can hear a richness to his voice that is not a put on. It’s all from within, free of pretension or replication. Staley was an innovator in the truest form of the word.
For all the praise his vocal dominance receives (of which it deserves all and more), Staley was also a very skillful, clever songwriter. While the heap of the praise goes to Jerry Cantrell for being the main songwriter of Alice in Chains, Staley also made immense contributions to the band’s catalog; both lyrically and musically. This is an aspect of Staley’s career that is too often overlooked. Cantrell provided Alice with some of their biggest hits; “Rooster”, “Would?” and “Heaven Beside You.” But Staley was more than capable of holding his own alongside Cantrell. Here are the top five Alice In Chains songs written By Layne Staley.
- Head Creeps- Music & Lyrics
Alice In Chains’ 1995 eponymous album is something of an enigma. It sounds so Alice In Chains while not really sounding like anything on their magnum opus, Dirt. The lyrical content of “Head Creeps” is on par with what a lot of Staley’s lyrics dealt with; addiction. Eerily, Staley pleads, “Just one more time?” as the song kicks off. The track is far from your basic four chord, straight forward rock song. The guitars chug, and the rhythm section drives while Staley’s distorted vocals leave a haunting impression. While it is not one of AIC’s best known songs, “Head Creeps” certainly deserves a listen; if for nothing other than its insanely catchy chorus. Staley croons, “Time to call the doggies off. Tired of the shadowin’.” A classic in its own right.
Jar of Flies. The EP that showed just how much musical ground Alice in Chains were capable of covering. “Nutshell” is the masterpiece on an album full of classics. Staley’s lyrics stand out as particularly somber. The aching in his voice is unmistakable. “Nutshell” is a great example of Staley’s ability to write strong melodies and be able to pull them off because of his vocal ability. There is a soothing effect to the verse melody despite the melancholy nature of the lyrics. “And yet I fight this battle all alone. No one to cry to. No place to call home.” This song kicked off Alice In Chains’ 1996 MTV Unplugged concert and set the mood perfectly for the evening’s event. “Nutshell” is simultaneously beautiful and heartbreaking, much like the man behind the song.
- Confusion- Lyrics
“Confusion” is a wildly underrated Alice In Chains song. Facelift, the band’s debut album, is often overlooked due to the success of its successor, Dirt. But that speaks more to the powerhouse Dirt is, and less of a slight to Facelift. On “Confusion,” Staley whales and whasps through the verses, while the music moves forward at a turtle’s pace. But once the pre-chorus kicks and leads to the chorus, Staley absolutely kills it. Assertive, dominant, and nearly exploding, Staley blasts out, “On skinned knees you crawl. I want to set you free. Recognize my disease. Love, sex, pain, confusion, suffering. You’re there crying, I feel not a thing.” The bold honesty in the lyrics makes Staley come off as a man who could not be bothered by the feelings of his significant other. That he only cares for himself; and not only owns it, but relishes in it. It is one of the best moments of Facelift.
- Angry Chair- Music & Lyrics
“Angry Chair” proved to be the most successful Alice In Chains song penned entirely by Staley. Musically, the structure is simple but effective. The intro drums and guitar riff are an iconic sound of the grunge era. The chorus is classic Staley. The vocal passages in the chorus are uniquely phrased to line up with the guitar; especially when Staley carries, “I-I-I” along with the vibrato of the guitar. It begs to question if Staley may have had the lyrics and melodies figured out and then wrote music to fit them. While the song verse melody exists on its own plane, the pre-chorus and chorus melodies and music lock together tightly. The song serves almost as a cautionary tale of sorts, a tale of addiction gone too far.
“Angry Chair” is rich in metaphor. Staley declares, “Little boy made a mistake. Pink cloud has now turned to gray.” It’s not hard to sympathize with Staley when listening to “Angry Chair.” The writing was on the wall, and his heart was on his sleeve. There was no doubt he was attempting to confront his demons through his art.
- Hate to Feel- Music & Lyrics
“Hate to Feel” is something of an outlier on Dirt. The descending riff mixed with the laidback swing infused rhythm give it an almost sleazy feel. When the song ratchets it up a gear in the pre-chorus, the onslaught begins. If “Angry Chair” is a cautionary tale to not get into drugs because this can happen, “Hate to Feel” is the story of what takes place maybe three months before that. For my money, these are the absolute best lyrics Staley ever wrote. “Stare at me with empty eyes and point your words at me. Mirror on the wall will show you what you’re scared to see.”
The subject matter is no doubt serious, but Staley finds a ways to humorously address it. Staley consistently was very blunt with his lyrics, however, “Hate to Feel” has a certain tongue in cheek-ness to it. Between his new pet bug, the pin cushion medicine, and the revelation that he ended up being exactly what he swore he wouldn’t be, the lyrics are poignant, yet telling of a man who was clearly going through something. No lyric more telling than, “Used to be curious. Now the shit’s sustenance.” As a complete musical package, “Hate to Feel” is Staley at his creative peak.