I'm not the world's biggest fan of Alice in Chains, though I did appreciate their take on grunge, as it was a bit more diverse and bit heavier than most of their peers. I'm actually surprised to realise that they're still together and with hardly any line-up changes, given that two out of four original members are no longer with us. In fact, Alice in Chains have been more prolific in the 21st century than Jerry Cantrell has on his own, this being his third solo album, his second this millennium and his first in the nineteen years since 2002's Degradation Trip.
If I've heard that, it would have been around its release and I've completely forgotten it, so I have to say that I'm coming into this pretty much without expectations, any that I have shaped by early Alice in Chains. And, while there's definitely a gritty tone to proceedings, it manifests more as alt country than it does grunge. That more modern tone aside, this feels much older than grunge, as if it's a covers album of country rock and classic rock deep cuts from the seventies that I've never heard before.
In truth, there's only one cover here, the short closer, which is of Elton John's Goodbye, the final track on Madman Across the Water, which was released in 1971 when Cantrell was only five and I'd maybe figured out how to stand up on my own. It's delightfully stripped down and resonant.
Perhaps the country flavour is made more overt by Atone, the opener and opening single. It's the most grunge song here too, reminding me of Mary My Hope as well as Alice in Chains but with an impactful drum sound that carries a stomping feet vibe, as if this was playing at a revival in a tent. A more traditional country flavour shows up on Siren Song, again an alt country rock number built off power chords and a much more laid back vibe. There's alt country too on Prism of Doubt and a lot on Black Hearts and Evil Done, a song that I could hear covered by Son Volt or Uncle Tupelo.
While the cover is of an Elton John song, the most frequent vibe I got here was Tom Petty, mostly in the credits that Cantrell can claim for his own: the guitar work, the songwriting and in some of the vocal melodies, if not the tone. His favourite song is apparently the title track and whenever it doesn't sound like Tom Petty, it sounds like ELO, especially in the changes and the Jeff Lynne-like chorus of "You only reap what you sow." Lynne, of course, wrote, produced and performed on the Full Moon Fever album for Petty, which has only grown over the years.
There would have been a member of the Heartbreakers here, keyboardist Benmont Tench, but he had other commitments that prevented him playing on Siren Song. His inclusion would be far less surprising than some of the people who are here. On bass is Duff McKagan of Guns n' Roses, who don't spring to mind as an influence at all. There are two members of the Dillinger Escape Plan at points, Gil Sharone contributing about half the drums and Greg Puciato adding backing vocals, again far from their genre of choice.
It's the other major contributor who seems to fit most logically and that's Abe Laboriel Jr., who's been Paul McCartney's drummer for the past couple of decades. There are Beatles moments here but a lot fewer than there are ELO or Lynyrd Skynyrd moments and far fewer than there are Tom Petty moments. By the time we get to Had to Know, it's impossible not to see Petty's hand all over this album, even if he had absolutely nothing to do with it. I wonder what Cantrell has been listening to most lately.
And so this was a bit of a surprise for me. It's recognisably Cantrell but it's Cantrell channelling a seventies vibe that I didn't expect, trawling in alt country, southern rock and classic pop/rock, over which he layers his grunge heritage as much as attitude as tone. And I like it, more than I expected to, which is always a good surprise for an album to bring me.