When Alice In Chains returned to rock’s top table in 2009 with Black Gives Way To Blue, they did so with a grace and humility that was wonderful to observe. ‘Hope, a new beginning. Time, time to start living,’ sang frontman William DuVall on the album’s opening track All Secrets Known, ushering in a new age for the iconic Seattle band who had been so bedevilled with misfortune in years gone by.
Only the most cynical of listeners could have begrudged them their triumphant return. Four years on, undoubtedly emboldened by the reception afforded to their comeback, the quartet rejoin the fray as a more confident and capable unit. And their fifth album is the sound of a band growing beautifully into their own skin.
The key to the album lies buried in the 12-track collection’s closing song. On the face of it, Choke is a requiem for love lying bloodied and bruised, a weary sigh of resignation from a luckless protagonist locked in another atrophying relationship. ‘Before you ask for something better,’ DuVall sings, ‘you should know I’m practised at goodbyes’. Yet, viewed in another light, as a metaphor for a re-awakened band offering a kiss-off to detractors calcified by memories of the past, the song takes on a more defiant, empowering tone; ‘Go then, if you don’t feel right living in our home,’ DuVall croons sweetly, gleefully holding open an exit door for the naysayers.
This kind of duality makes The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here a fascinating construct, and one richly rewarding for those prepared to invest time in its expansive layers. It’s not that the album lacks punch initially – Jerry Cantrell’s thrilling, propulsive riffs on Phantom Limb and the fabulously disorienting bends and sways of Stone offer instant gratification for those craving a fix of Alice In Chains at their most direct – but the devil is in the detail here: the pedal steel touches on Scalpel, the shimmering, Beatles-esque melodies on the deceptively pretty Voices, the tar-black humour in lyrics such as ‘Old Mr Fun is back. Wonder where he’s been hiding?’ (Low Ceiling).
DuVall deserves great credit for both his smart, knowing lyrics and his soul-drenched vocals – his harmonising with Cantrell is nothing less than mesmerising throughout – but really this is a group effort, erected on the most solid of foundations. It’s emphatically the work of men, not boys, a grown-up’s rock record tackling life’s big questions (identity, love, the nature of happiness) with a sureness of touch only experienced heads can bring to the table. Introducing the title track, a controlled yet caustic broadside at organised religion, DuVall assumes the role of an evangelical huckster, singing ‘Come to me, I’ll fill the hole’, but throughout this transcendent collection Alice In Chains offer so much more than that.
No nostalgia trip, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here finds the quartet boldly stretching beyond their fabulous legacy and heading for a brighter tomorrow with no need for a rear-view mirror.