The compelling darkness that infuses many of Jerry Cantrell’s songs seems nearly inevitable. There’s the idea that the often dreary weather of his Seattle hometown breeds musical gloom. And over the years he’s lost many friends to drug and mental health miseries, including Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley and the band’s former bassist Mike Starr. To say nothing of peers Chris Cornell, Kurt Cobain, Mark Lanegan, and more.
That the guitarist-singer’s hypnotic riffs and often emotionally heavy lyrics—as both a solo artist and in AIC—can be harrowing is no surprise. Cantrell-penned songs since 1989’s “We Die Young,” including the hits “Man in the Box,” “Rooster,” “Them Bones,” and the solo tune “Cut You In,” are sinuously heavy even when acoustic-based.
Brighten, Cantrell’s third solo album, came out on October 29, 2021, and while it’s not a sea change for the artist, there are, as the title indicates, rays of light. In conversation with the Voice, Cantrell’s demeanor remains somewhat reticent and guarded, preferring to leave in-depth conversations about lyrical intent on the table.
The LP begins with “Atone,” then moves into title track “Brighten,” whose lyrics “Only reap what you sow” could be a warning to another or a reminder to self. “Music can be interpreted; it should be interpretable to anybody,” Cantrell says. “It could mean multiple things. Am I saying that to myself? I’m saying that to you, the world, maybe all three things at once, and that’s probably right.” Cantrell had completed basic tracks for Brighten when Covid locked down the world. “We were in a good place, and then everything shut down. So it was nice to have something to focus on during all of that. The bones, the structure of the record—the concrete was poured and the studs in the frame were up,” he analogizes.
The unexpected time allowed him to “adapt the record to the circumstances.” The end result included having at least three musicians on Brighten who probably wouldn’t have been on the LP during the fast pace of pre-Covid life—including old pal Duff McKagan, the one-time Seattle punk who joined Guns N’ Roses. “Like, ‘Hey, you’re not working? Because I’m not. I’d love to have you on this thing if you want to,’” Cantrell says. Also on Brighten are Paul McCartney drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. and composer-musician Tyler Bates, who is also in Cantrell’s live band.
The songs on Brighten invoke a wash of feelings and emotions rather than telling specific stories. Cantrell believes, “[An album] should show shades of where the artist is, or what kind of inspiration is influencing you, or what you’re feeling that you want to translate.” He momentarily struggles with his words. “It’s not like some big master plan or whatever. It’s just emotion and feeling and in the moment. I think that the album definitely captures a feel, and that’s why I titled it Brighten—there’s some more light, but there’s clouds, too.”
That said, he notes, “There’s elements of what’s on Brighten on any record I’ve done. They’re just time capsules of a period. And a life surrounded by other lives that you’re making this record with, this music with.”
Brighten offers an aural snapshot musically reminiscent of the dreamy shamble of Stones ballads like “Waiting on a Friend” or “Torn and Frayed” (especially Cantrell’s song “Dismembered,” with its lyrical “sewn-up” Frankenstein imagery), while “Nobody Breaks You” has a chorus that’s musically heartbreaking, with poignant piano work. The album closer is a cover of Elton John’s 1971 song “Goodbye.” This makes for a quandary when it comes to the live show. “It’s a quality problem trying to make a set list that covers all eras. There’s Springsteen or Pearl Jam and three-, four-hour concerts. I don’t have that stamina to do that,” says the 56-year-old frontman. “You’re gonna get about an hour and a half, an hour 45 out of me before I gotta pull the ripcord.”
Onstage in front of a packed Irving Plaza a week later, Cantrell is joined by a six-piece band that includes pedal steel player Michael Rozon and keyboard player Jason Achilles, the additional members creating lush instrumentation that adds layers and contrast to the mesmerizing, heavy-riff musicality. As with Alice in Chains, the songs are written for a minimum of two voices, which can be interchangeable. Joining Cantrell on the Brighten LP and tour—at a mic stand to Cantrell’s right—is vocalist Greg Puciato, ex-frontman of metalcore band The Dillinger Escape Plan. His punk energy and powerful, supple voice were Cantrell’s perfect counterpoint and complement.
Cantrell and Co. shone on nine Alice in Chains songs in a 19-song set, and, unsurprisingly, the AIC tunes of all eras fit in seamlessly next to Cantrell’s solo work, both old and from Brighten. Starting with AIC gem “Them Bones” and including “Man in the Box” and “Rooster” (which he introduced as “a song about a chicken”), the solo work highlights included the stripped-down but almost headbanging staccato of 1998’s “Cut You In” and a pair of stellar songs from his latest, the title track, along with “Atone.” The last two take their place among the best of Cantrell’s compositions.
Cantrell is a guitar hero, not in the mold of his own late friends and peers Eddie Van Halen or Pantera’s Dimebag Darrell, but possessed of a signature sound and style that’s instantly recognizable, often with slight Southern rock/country hints. His slide guitar work added a country twang to the captivating acoustic intensity of “Black Hearts and Evil Done,” when Cantrell was joined by tour opener Lola Colette, who sings on Brighten and is band member Tyler Bates’s daughter.
It was actually Cantrell’s solo work that allowed Alice in Chains to regroup following Layne Staley’s death, in 2002. Comes With the Fall singer William DuVall met Cantrell in 2000, and Cantrell invited DuVall’s band to open on his solo “Degradation Trip” tour. In fact, CWTF did nightly double-duty as Cantrell’s touring band. “I didn’t think, like, ‘I’m gonna plot to put the band back together years down the road, and this is the guy.’ I mean, he’s a talented guy, and we worked well together,” Cantrell recalls about the beginning of his musical relationship with DuVall. “He did a great job. When we started talking about it, we’d had that experience. So I thought we’d invite him down and see how he felt about it, and see how we felt about it.” Feelings all around were more than positive, and DuVall joined Alice in Chains in 2006. To date, they’ve done three albums and numerous tours.
Back to our phone call: Cantrell is a few days from the launch of his first solo tour in 20 years. One of his cats meows in the background as Cantrell does a day of press interviews. Sure, Brighten’s songs may be (slightly) different from his work in Alice in Chains, but the process remains the same. “It’s like Tom Brady,” he explains. “He plays football. He played football on the Patriots for many years. Now he’s going to do a season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The difference is I’m still an owner of the team and can go back to the team.”
So Cantrell can retire for two weeks and then decide to “unretire”?
He chuckles. “There’s no retiring. I’m a lifer. So far making the record has been really cool. And really fun. And now I’m taking the trip with all these fucking nuts who decided to take a trip with this particular nut.” ❖
Katherine Turman has written for Entertainment Weekly, Spin, Billboard, and other publications, is the author of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, and produces the classic rock radio program Nights With Alice Cooper. She lives in Brooklyn.