"I'd like to fly/ But my wings have been so denied." The slower burn of "Down in a Hole," from the album Dirt, stretches the tighter boundaries set by "Them Bones" and "Dam That River" through poetic lyrics and some simple fingerpicking, while maintaining the group's powerful edge.
A good listen whenever you're depressed, "Down in a Hole" can often sum up your feelings, whether it be a breakup or the death of a friend. Beginning with an evocative fingerpicking solo, the song soon descends into power chords and then Layne's lilting, penetrating voice, backed up by Jerry's voice. Interestingly enough, the song seems to evince a depressed tone, but it ends on a happier tone. This song has a feel to it; it can make you touch the more sympathetic or contemplative corners of your mind. Altogether, this tune is lovely and beautiful, a story that unfolds in front of you.
The beginning riffs of "Down in a Hole" are light, soft, and fairly melodic, a quiet contrast to the power chord driven chaos of "Rain When I Die" or "Them Bones." These opening elements would seem to be the first sign of a weak spot in Dirt's considerable "heavy rock" armor, but as soon as the whining electric guitar lick first presents itself at the end of this seemingly "quiet" phrase, it becomes readily apparent that there is more to this song than originally anticipated.
Layne Staley's voice immediately shows itself to be just as important as Jerry Cantrell's talented guitar playing on this track as it booms through the distorted music, creating a cascade of frustrated emotion with every word. Both the bassist (then Mike Starr) and drummer, Sean Kinney, shine, albeit dimly, on this track as well, skillfully flaunting their rhythmic power. Unlike some other tracks on Dirt, the lyrics also seem less forced, more flowing, and a bit more clever. Lines like, "Holding rare flowers in a tomb/ In bloom," come off as poetic monologues as opposed to the aggressive rants as featured on songs such as "Dam That River." The poetic feel is accented, no doubt, by Jerry's backing vocals, which, although more strained, provide a "rhythm guitar" voice to Layne's "lead guitar" voice. The result of all of these elements is what could be considered one of the most ambitious songs on this album and a tune worth listening to often (and repeatedly).
"You Have To Have Positives And Negatives" - Jerry Cantrell, 1993
"Down In A Hole," written by Jerry Cantrell for Alice In Chains's 1992 release, Dirt, is a song which expresses his feelings of depression and helplessness. This song, like virtually every other one which he's written, gives Cantrell a way to speak about something ugly and make it beautiful and allows him to rid himself of the burden of such thoughts. In "Down In A Hole," he feels as though he has died, figuratively, and the man that others see is not the real one, but a virtually lifeless failure. All he wants is to be revitalized and to feel good again. He may need a friend's help in doing so. Through the use of paradoxical phrases, carefully selected diction, and rhyme, Cantrell, with the stylistic additions from his fellow band members, creates a song of pure emotional expression.If one is to read the lyrics, rhyme is practically not apparent, and the stanza divisions seem to have no set pattern. This is fairly characteristic of Cantrell's lyrics, unlike those of Layne Staley, the band's main vocalist and back-up guitarist, which are much more uniform to read.
However, Cantrell's, when sung, do fit together nicely as a result of the music's rhythm. Even though the first stanza is written with an aabca kind of rhyme, when spoken, it becomes aaba since the fourth and fifth lines blur together as one. Already, the song is beginning to look more like a poem. The rhyme in the first stanza, with the slow, repetitive "oo" sounds, creates a dismal tone from the very start. This is broken in line three, and therefore this line becomes emphasized. It is indeed the loudest of the four.
This line becomes a cry for help; he needs to be saved before he's totally covered with dirt. For the most part, everything in this stanza is related to death. "Womb" can be looked upon as the origin of new life, in which case Cantrell likens himself to a helpless infant, but more likely, "womb" here is like the womb in Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun. This womb is more like death than birth. It is a point of living but really not being alive; it's like being a side of beef and not a human being. Likewise, Metallica has also made references to this womb in their 1988 song, "One" by James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich. This song is based on Trumbo's World War I novel. Despite all of this death, Cantrell still has a little bit of life in him; the womb doesn't mean that he's not still a living being, and even though he says he holds "rare flowers," they are in bloom. "In bloom" just is a tag-along type of phrase, which is uttered softly and separate from the rest of the stanza.
It adds a little bit of hope to his predicament. However, he still is unsure if he'll be able to escape his funk: "and i don't know / If I can be saved." Now that his body's practically dead, and one discovers that it probably happened because he lived life almost too much, he was too vivacious, so he's become immune to external feelings. Therefore, he might as well disguise his heart in the same way: "I decorate it / Like a grave."
He feels like he hasn't lived up to his potential to a certain degree in the following lines, since he stresses that "they" thought he was supposed to turn out differently. For this, and for everything else which plagues him, he beats himself up, so to speak. The song progresses to the chorus stanza in which Cantrell dwells on his misery by referring to himself specifically as dead in a tomb with an escaping soul. However, this must be a troubled soul since he is unable to fly, presumably in heaven, because he has been denied his wings. The last two lines of the chorus can be read another way simultaneously. By flying he could mean escaping from his bad feelings, his "tomb," his "womb" and receiving love, which he desperately needs. Then, he feels as if this is an impossible feat to accomplish since he can find no "wings" or no means by which to do it.
In the next stanza, he has pretty much given up hope on himself, and here, the rhyme is similar to that of the second stanza. Like the first one, the lines don't seem to really rhyme, but it all depends on the rhythm of the song. Even though these two stanzas appear to be nothing alike, the rhythm of this song, as with all Alice In Chains songs, depends on the number of syllables in a sequence and not how the words are placed on the page. After all, a song can look whatever way the writer wishes, provided that it is sung to fit in correctly with the music. So, if one is to analyze these two stanzas by ear, the rhyme is aabb for both; the same a's and the same b's are in both. That is to say that the same end rhyme sounds are used. The rhyme sound falls around the thirteenth syllable. This holds true because sometimes extra syllables are added to words. For example, "my" in stanza two takes up the place of two syllables. In fact, only the chorus refrains really hold true to rhyming the way they are written. And it is here as well where internal rhyme helps set the chorus apart from the rest of the song.
Cantrell does seem to be giving up all hope in the third verse, since "they" have shut him into this hell which is void of emotion, especially love, by closing off the final pieces of the tomb. He reflects on his loss of external emotion and feeling by saying, "I've eaten the sun so my tongue / has been burned of the taste", meaning that he's lived life to such an extent that he's virtually unfeeling. This reference to the mouth leads him to say that he is famous for putting his foot in his mouth, so to speak. This could also be read to coincide with him beating himself up inside, since he's a man "who won't let himself be." Since he has had some bad luck whenever he opens his mouth, he decides to keep it shut, therefore further sealing himself off from others, by keeping his internal feelings to himself.
The chorus repeats, and this time it seems to pack a little more punch, because he feels so much worse by now. The part to follow can only be analyzed correctly if one examines how it is sung by the band, since the way it's printed doesn't do it justice. "Oh I want to be inside of you" is repeated four times while the first verse is sung agan, simultaneously. These lines can be interpreted two ways. The first way would be that he is talking to some "you"; the same person whom he addressed in the first two stanzas, presumably. He wants this person's love; he wants her to make him feel better. He is a man desperately in need of a hug. This can lead one to think that in the first stanza it is his love that he gave up for her. However, with that thought still in his mind, he admits that he'd rather like to have her back and still more, he'd like to be able to regain that part of him. One could also take this last "you" to be an apostrophe towards the tomb. It's as if he wants to really be inside a tomb, he's dwelling on his death, and he's maybe hoping that true death will help him escape from this hell in which he is living, like Joe hopes to do in the Trumbo novel and likewise the speaker in the Metallica song, but something is terribly wrong: He cannot die. Just as Joe can't kill himself, because he isn't even in charge of his own life, machines are, Cantrell is so terrified of his own death that he can't possibly really dwell on killing himself. It is this last bit that makes the second reading of the line improbable, and therefore the first one more likely.
The chorus changes the last time around. An extra bit is added which encompasses his feelings of hopelessness and despair, since by this time in the course of his soul searching and train of thought, he really feels as if he's spun out of control. In a nutshell, Cantrell would like to feel better, and actually, by going through the cleansing process of writing this song and releasing the feelings which are writhing inside of him. Therefore, his intention behind this song is to express himself. When asked about what he goes through in order to write such personal lyrics laden with emotion, he replies, "...my way is to speak through my music. Instead of keeping feelings inside, all twisted up, we let it out in the music. It's out of your body, out of your soul, and spoken."
It's hard to judge exactly what Cantrell or Staley were thinking when they wrote their songs, because as Staley reflected in 1994, "...the meaning changes from day to day...to whatever stage we're at in our life and careers." Their advice to avid listeners is simply this, as Staley stated in 1995: "The songs are about things that we were thinking and we wrote 'em down, and when you listen to 'em, whatever you think it's about...that's what it's about!" "Down In A Hole" is a fairly controversial song, in that everyone has his or her own opinion of what it means. Some argue that it's about sex, some say death, and others think they were just messing around. Basically, it's about feelings, and some may take those feelings a different way than others. What matters is that the band doesn't seem to care, in fact, they support it. However, it's a pretty safe bet to assume that "Down In A Hole" is a way for the band to release some emotional tension and to unchain some depressing feelings, since all of their songs seem to fit into one of three categories: general depression, the task of coping with the horrors of drug addiction, and plain silliness.
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