Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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100 Years, 100 Songs: #93. Alice in Chains – “Would?”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 16, 2007

“Am I wrong? / Have I run too far to get home?”

There are no songs by Nirvana or Pearl Jam on this list. Both bands I would consider among the greatest of the last twenty years, easy, and both have about as many classics to their name as any other band of the era. But neither of them really have that one transcendent song that stands out from the rest of their catalogue, and yes, that includes “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” since this list only include songs that I don’t reflexively switch off on the radio because I never need to hear it again.

Alice in Chains’ “Would?” is the only song from the grunge Big Four (Nirvana, PJ, AIC, Soundgarden) on this list, maybe because it barely even sounds like a grunge song. Nothing against grunge in particular–the concept of melding metal’s sound with punk’s methodology was a smart, if inevitable one–but the genre produced few classic songs in its pure form, and most of the hit songs associated with grunge today have barely anything to do with Mudhoney or Green River.

First off, “Would?” is that unfortunate rarity among grunge, or really all hard rock songs–one anchored and propelled by a lead bass line. Outside of Weezer, The Breeders and a couple Green Day songs (and Primus, but they suck), the bass was heavily underused as a lead (or even audible) instrument in 90s rock, but in “Would?” it’s by far the most memorable part of the song, mysterious, pitch-black and bone-chilling. It sets the tone for the song perfectly, and remains just about the only reason AIC bassist Mike Starr’s name is worth remembering.

And anyway, there was a certain spooky, ethereal quality to Alice in Chains that made them always stand out from the grunge pack to begin with. Eddie Vedder occasionally seemed disturbed, Kurt Cobain was obviously genuinely troubled, but Layne Stayley often sounded downright evil. The druggy haze that early AIC songs existed in, combined with Stayley’s deathly lyrics and his and Jerry Cantrell’s piercing, unsettling harmonies, made AIC’s best songs sound disturbing and deeply disturbed; other grunge bands were tough, but only AIC seemed genuinely menacing.

What makes “Would?” the best AIC song is that not only is it one of their scariest, creepiest songs, but it’s also definitely their most cinematic. Short lulls of verse serve as lead ins to the song’s thrilling, action-packed but ambiguous chorus (“Into the flood again / same old trip it was back then / So I made a big mistake / try to see it once my way”) After two acts of this drama, including a brief instrumental intermission to build up tension, the song even has a twist ending of sorts, with the song’s hook dropping out and Stayley’s conviction turning to self-doubt (“Am I wrong? / Have I run too far to get home?”) And the song’s devestating finale (“IF! I! WOULD! COULD! YOU?”) is one of rock’s most haunting conclusions, 90s alternative’s “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”

It’s only appropriate that a song this cinematic should have broken through to popular consciousness through a movie soundtrack. Ironically, it did it through the romantic comedy Singles, which despite being set in the grunge scene and featuring almost all of the genre’s leading lights, is about the movie’s diametric opposite in tone–sweet, heartfelt and unassuming where “Would?” was growling, scarred and practically apocalyptic. “Would?” belongs in a permanent-midnight flick like Se7en or The Crow, not a movie featuring extended ruminations on the importane of saying “God Bless You” after someone sneezes. More appropriate is the place of “Would?” as the closer to AIC’s ’92 masterpiece Dirt, a haunting (sorry, I’m out of synonyms for this extremely appropriate word and I don’t believe in thesauruses) conclusion to one of the most chilling (again) of the 90s.

The back catalogues of Nirvana and Pearl Jam ultimately own AIC’s several times owner, but with “Would?” they created a song at least as enduring and still-echoing as any those bands would create. And especially after Stayley’s unfortunately too-late-to-be-tragic drug-related death, it’s one whose place in the alt-rock canon is permanently cemented.

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