Sunday, April 4, 2010

April 4: Alice In Chains, "Don't Follow"

Artist: Alice In Chains
Song: "Don't Follow"
Album: Jar Of Flies
Year: 1994

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Throughout the course of music history, it has become clear that, the more a song is truly written from the heart, the better chance that it will find commercial success.  This can be translated as the idea that the general public are still drawn to clear acts of honesty, and these sorts of songs also stand the test of time.  Whether it is about a lost love, a traumatic experience, or one of lifes' great joys, those who are able to capture these moments in song remain the greatest artists in history.  However, many of these songs represent the "darker" side of the idea, as those who can capture the essence of personal tragedy also often end up with a legendary song on their hands.  In many ways, there has never been another band that so consistently captured the feeling of being "on the edge" and allowed their personal demons into their music as much as Alice In Chains.  Tragically, the group is often written off as a "grunge" band, and yet after listening to their music, they are either the greatest "grunge" band in history, or a band of a genre all their own.  Led by the brilliant songwriting and guitar of Jerry Cantrell and the unmistakable vocals of Layne Staley, Alice In Chains gave the world some of the greatest songs in history, and many of these songs are also the most stirring and chilling songs ever recorded.  Looking at the entire Alice In Chains catalog, one can almost read it as a diary of Staley's battle with drug addiction, and the true depth of his problem became clear when he passed away on April 5, 2002.  Surrounded by a musical partner that clearly thought the world of him (Cantrell), it was a song that one can see as written FOR Staley that stands as one of the bands finest moments, as there has never been another song quite like Alice In Chains' 1994 single, "Don't Follow."

As Alice In Chains' third studio release, oen could only expect that it would follow the dark, sludge-metal pattern that had made their first two records such classics.  However, when Jar Of Flies hit stores, it was a strange collection of songs, filled with acoustic guitars and only a shard of the "classic" Alice In Chains sound.  Yet even with this strangely divergent musical path, there was no question that the songs were equally amazing and powerful, and this solidified the group as one of the most talented of their generation.  "Don't Follow" epitomizes this contrast, as while the song is little more than Cantrell's lone acoustic guitar, a harmonica, and singing, it still carries an amazing impact, and is almost unsettling in the truth that one can feel in both the music and lyrics.  Furthermore, the entire first half of the song is devoid of even a rhythm section, and the fact that the band was able to gain success with a sound so far from their "normal" sound serves as proof that great songs will always persevere, and that truly talented bands can make their "magic" in any musical setting.  The simple pairing of Cantrell's guitar and the harmonica of David Atkinson somehow gives "Don't Follow" a warm feeling and at the same time makes it just as haunting as any other song in the Alice In Chains catalog.  Even when the rest of the band joins in for the second half of the song, the mood is never lost, and there has rarely been another song in history that proved beyond a doubt that an acoustic song can carry just as much power as a song with everything "turned up to eleven."

Along with the acoustic music, there is one other factor on "Don't Follow" that sets it far aside from nearly any other song that Alice In Chains ever recorded.  Listening to the song, one may think that it is Layne Staley on vocals, but the truth of the matter is, Jerry Cantrell sings nearly every word.  While Staley joins in during the bridge sections and a few other parts, an overwhelming majority of the vocals are in fact done by Cantrell.  This fact not only shows what an amazing vocalist lives in Cantrell, but also just how similar his voice was to that of Staley on many levels.  Able to capture nearly as much dark, melancholy mood as Staley, knowing that this is Cantrell singing makes the true meaning behind the song even more clear.  After listening to the song, one can easily make the case that "Don't Follow" was a desperate cry to Staley, and in retrospect, it stands as perhaps the most truly heartbreaking song of the entire decade.  Both the music and lyrics were written by Cantrell, and when he sings lines like, "...hey you, you're livin' life full throttle...hey you, pass me down that bottle..." one can sense how accurately he is describing Staley's addiction problems, and the pain and love he feels for his friend is unquestionable.  The song becomes even more haunting in the bridge section, where Staley takes the vocal duties, quickly pushing the song to an unrivaled level of tragic truth.  When Staley belts out, "...well I forgot my woman, lost my friends, things I've done and where I've been...," the personal nature of the words is clear.  A few bars later, he goes on to deliver the lines, "...take me home...," and it is one of the moments where Staley is clearly singing "from the other side," and remains one of the most stunning moments of his entire career.

While many will always remember Alice In Chains as the vehicle which brought the world the great Layne Staley, the truth of the matter is, Jerry Cantrell was just as important a part of the group, and it was often his compositions that became the groups' biggest hits.  Having already blown away the world with their Facelift and Dirt records, their third studio album, 1994's Jar Of Flies look a sharp turn and presented the group in a far quieter, more reflective light.  Filled with acoustic guitars and deep, unguarded lyrics, every song on the album (though it is more of an EP) is an Alice In Chains "classic," and one can make the case that the group never sounded better.  Though by this point, Layne Staley was clearly fighting a losing battle with his drug addiction, one can also clearly see that his bandmates were rallying around him, and doing all they could to try and help.  Standing as one of the most personal and honest songs ever written, "Don't Follow" is without question Jerry Cantrell's call to his friend, hoping to save his life.  The almost tranquil musical progression, contrasted with the painful lyrics and highly emotive singing made the song impossible to ignore when it was released, and the honestly and heart behind the song makes it just as moving and powerful nearly twenty years later.  With lyrics that can be applied to a number of situations, there is nothing cliché about these words, and the way in which Cantrall delivers his plea to a friend remains nothing short of heartbreaking.  When Staley himself sings the bridge, it is clear that he is well aware of his problem, yet knows he stands little chance of beating it.  Though the world lost the great Layne Staley eight years ago, his legend remains strong, and the true brilliance and beauty of him and his relationship with Jerry Cantrell is perfectly captured on Alice In Chains' disturbingly powerful 1994 song, "Don't Follow."


Anonymous said...

GREAT GREAT GREAT!! I love AIC and this was one of the best reviews of them I had read! Jerry is just as important as Layne was to AIC and I think he proved that with Black Gives Way to Blue!

Maya said...

Kudos. This is perfect.

Federico said...

Great read! Thanks. Keep em coming!

Bradford Rand said...

This is right on the money... This song never gets old and is an eternal classic piece of music.

Gaby soto said...

You talk so beautifully about Alice In Chains. No wonder this song is so beautiful and melancholic, it's about Layne. This band is with no doubt my favorite band of all time because their music is written from the heart. Great review!