S-Tier Songs, Vol. 17

It’s yet another installation of the S-Tier Songs series. The list of entries so far and the basic tenants of the exercise can be found on this page.

Today’s offering is one of the finest moments of the grunge movement. Even with being “grunge,” it is a suiting power ballad that evokes sadness and despair in a way not a lot of artists can touch.

Alice In Chains – Down In A Hole

Our song today hails from the album Dirt, the 1992 masterpiece of the Seattle-led grunge period. The album sold millions and was ever-present on radio and video airwaves. It qualifies as “classic rock” today and is still in rotation far and wide.

Down In A Hole was the fifth and final single from the album. It was released as a single almost a full year after the album arrived. The single sold over a million copies and charted in several countries. On Spotify it is the third-most streamed song from Dirt, behind only the mega-hits Rooster and Would?

The song begins very softly, almost in a way that departs the hard-edged album it is from. But it remains within the Alice In Chains lexicon, with suitably melancholy guitar work from Jerry Cantrell and the sheer power of the vocals of Layne Stayley, with harmonies provided by Cantrell. The singing has always been a highlight of AIC and both Stayley and Cantrell shine especially bright on this song.

The lyrical content of a song called Down In A Hole is, of course, pretty downtrodden. Though not from the doom genre per se, this could easily be considered a doom song thematically. It sounds like someone in the grip of utter despair and hopelessness. Every line is awash in depression and soul-crushing anguish. Lines like “See my heart, I decorate it like a grave” and “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” are jewels in this crown of misery.

Jerry Cantrell, the song’s sole writer, shed some light on the song’s origins in the liner notes to the band’s 1999 box set Music Bank. He states that the song was written about his girlfriend at the time and the realities of a long-term relationship and how they clash with being in a band. While there are plenty of songs about that and about life on the road in general, I don’t know how he got Down In A Hole out of that. But hey, I’m glad he did.

Down In A Hole has been a staple of the Alice In Chains setlist, with one major caveat to that – they did not often perform the song when Layne Stayley was alive. It was not a regular part of the setlist on the band’s tours in the early 90’s, and the group did not tour much after that due to Stayley’s health issues. A vast majority of Down In The Hole performances are from the band’s modern incarnation with William Duvall at the vocal helm.

One notable exception was the 1996 MTV Unplugged performance. This did feature Layne and the song worked very well in the unplugged setting. Alice In Chains were always a proficient acoustic act anyway, so having this version of the song is a massive plus.

Why is this an S-Tier song?

Down In A Hole is both beautiful and soul-crushing. It communicates absolute sadness but in a very majestic way. It showcases the main strengths of Alice In Chains, those being the voice of Layne Stayley and the musicianship and songwriting of Jerry Cantrell. It is an amazing work that got huge airplay despite being such a depressing affair.

6 thoughts on “S-Tier Songs, Vol. 17

      1. Yes it was. On one hand you had party rock and grunge all in one bill. VH was smart as they knew the tide was turning as I saw this show in November 91

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s