Of all the grunge bands proliferating around the Seattle scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s, few were darker than Alice in Chains. That’s ironic, considering how Layne Staley’s first incarnation of the group was a hair metal band much in the same vein as Poison or Cinderella. But when Jerry Cantrell came in, riffs started to go lower, and themes began to get more bleak and fatalistic.
The band quickly accrued a reputation for stark reality and uncompromising lyrics, most notably on their debut EP We Die Young. The band’s debut LP, Facelift, didn’t offer much lightness either, with tracks like ‘Sea of Sorrow’ and ‘Bleed the Freak’ helping to establish grunge as the heavier, more disillusioned antithesis of modern metal music.
But Alice in Chains weren’t without hooks. Despite revelling in the sludge arrangements and moody atmosphere that they could conjure at will, the group also had a knack for earworms and a conscious mastery of melody, as can be heard in the tight harmonies produced by Staley and Cantrell. No song on their debut provided a better platform for their mix of catchiness and aggression like ‘Man in the Box’.
While being interviewed by Rolling Stone in 1992, Staley shed some light on the inspiration behind the song’s lyrics. “I started writing about censorship,” Staley explained. “Around the same time, we went out for dinner with some Columbia Records people who were vegetarians. They told me how veal was made from calves raised in these small boxes, and that image stuck in my head. So I went home and wrote about government censorship and eating meat as seen through the eyes of a doomed calf.”
“But what it’s basically about is, is how government and media control the public’s perception of events in the world or whatever,” Cantrell added during a contemporary interview shortly after the song and its video were released, “and they build you into a box by feeding it to you in your home, ya know. And it’s just about breaking out of that box and looking outside of that box that has been built for you.”
Ironically, ‘Man in the Box’ itself was subject to censorship, due to the repeated use of the word “shit” during the song’s verses. Radio edits variously have the words “spit” inserted or simply mute the word altogether, bringing the themes of oversight and control into stark clarity.
Check out the video for ‘Man in the Box’ down below.