In the liner notes to Robert Johnson's Complete Recordings, Eric Clapton writes of being so moved by the intensity of the music it was almost unbearable to listen to. It took him months for his ears and mind to come to terms with music that seemed infinitely more powerful than anything else he was hearing at the time. Clapton said it took probably six months of listening to adjust to the potency of the music, and after that he barely listened to anything else and and the work of Johnson became a lifelong passion.
Alice in Chains' Dirt is the closest to that anything has come for me, and it took me years. When I bought the record, I was immediately drawn to a handful of songs but there were some tracks on the record that were coming from a place I couldn't begin to imagine. I had no frame of reference to help me. I'm not even talking about the literal translation of the lyrics. No, I've never done heroin, but there's more to these songs than that. Yes, the references to drug use and addiction are obvious and plentiful and that probably was a barrier for me on some level but I knew even then that was only a small piece of what stood between me and songs like "Sickman."
That's one of the amazing properties of art. That's one of the reasons for its existence. Art can transport a person to a place they've never themselves been. Art can share corners of the world its audience didn't know existed. It can take its audience to places that don't exist. I'm sure for people who have experiences similar to those described in the songs of Dirt, there is a dimension they have that I lack but the quality of the art allows a foreigner to travel to a faraway land.
Alice in Chains were criticized for being open about drug abuse and addiction and were accused of glorifying it. Those critics couldn't be more wrong. These songs take on some ugly truths and don't flinch from it. It took me years to penetrate this dense, dark, intense, emotional record and I still find it difficult after 18 years of listening to stare straight at it. There is no glory to be found. Dirt isn't pretty and it's imperfect, but it's still a towering artistic achievement. They have been one of my favorite bands for years and not one of their records has gone down easily, and Dirt was the most difficult for me to swallow. It still is.