Down In A Hole (1992)
Alice In Chains
“Down In A Hole” rewrote the book of love for the generation that came of age in the early-1990s. It is fraught with not just the specific anxieties of losing a romantic interest but a more universal angst that asks: “Are love and commitment even possible?”
It begins quietly, eerily, making one worry that we’ve been thrown back into a time warp for which the Moody Blues have supplied the soundtrack. The listener is soon relieved of that fear only to find that worse demons hang out at the end of Lonely Street. The music unfolds at a steady pace, trudging on, trudging on, like a team of climbers trekking up the world’s most imposing mountain range in sub-zero weather.
A wall of sound filled with tracked guitars skirmishing with each other rises louder and louder. Mike Starr’s mood-setting bass and Sean Kinney’s drums are hypnotically funereal. The whole song reeks of death and failure. Yet it is moving in the way that a great Blues song – especially of the kind transmogrified by guitarists like Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page – opens, like a shell that reveals a dark pearl. We are transfixed by the opulence, horrified by the decadent excess of feeling.
Bury me softly in this womb
I kept this part of me from you
Sand rains down and here I sit
Holding rare flowers In a tomb… in bloom
Down in a hole and I don’t know if I can be saved
See my heart I decorate it like a grave
Well you don’t understand who they
Thought I was supposed to be
Look at me now I’m a man
Who won’t let himself be
The power riffs that cannonade from songwriter Jerry Cantrell’s lead guitar require words having to do with unbridled, untamed electricity: dynamo, thunderbolts, turbo, molecular, atomic, elemental. Enough cannot be said for his guitar work here.
Soon, the listener is transported into an alternative, science-fiction-colored world stuck in the ear like some predatory alien boring deeper and deeper. Starships, asteroids, space debris whiz by on the strings of Cantrell’s electric guitar, lending more than a friendly nod to Mick Ronson on David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” among other futuristic works.
“Down In A Hole” is one of the most thorough explorations of despair in the last 100 years. A good deal of credit must go to Layne Staley’s struggling, pious, heart-breaking vocals. Half-strangled, half-exhausted, his voice struggles to claw out of the hole only to slide back down again into the miserable abyss.
Yet the song is inexplicably uplifting. The massive effort? The refusal of humans to give in, give up, or give over their souls to darkness?
The harmonies sung by Cantrell to Staley’s lead are pure wizardry that recall Neil Young and Danny Whitten’s best; King Crimson; David Bowie; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and The Beatles.
In short the pair summarize many forms of Rock-harmony singing that encompass the years 1965 to the early-1990s. This is the kind of singing missing in lesser efforts. It is emotional, thick with honesty, uncompromising. It lifts “Down In The Hole” to a special level.
Down in a hole, feelin so small
Down in a hole, losin my soul
I’d like to fly
But my wings have been so denied
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
I have been guilty
Of kicking myself in the teeth
I will speak no more
Of my feelings beneath
Most critics, (and many fans), will label “Down In A Hole” Grunge or some other genre. “Down In The Hole” is great Rock-N-Roll, pure and unadulterated. It is one of the Top-10 songs of its decade. It should be regarded as one of the Top-200 classic Rock songs of all time. It’s importance keeps growing.
[Addendum: There is a stunningly beautiful, emotionally stirring acoustic version of “Down In A Hole.” You can view/listen above left.]
- In 2002, lead singer Layne Staley was found dead, surrounded by drug paraphernalia and weighing 86 pounds. Though the song was originally written by Jerry Cantrell to delve into the difficulties of a love relationship, like all great music it takes on many shades of meaning at different times.
- Jerry Cantrell: “I’ve always been drawn to music that tells the sadder tale and tells the deeper, truer tale, which at times can be very dark.”