Sitting on his porch, looking out onto the Puget Sound in Washington State, Jerry Cantrell is feeling lighter, brighter. Ready to release his third solo album, Brighten, today through Think Indie, things are looking up, despite this being the most precarious of times — 17 months into the coronavirus pandemic.
Although not as weighty as Cantrell’s previous offerings on 1998 release Boggy Depot and Degradation Trip in 2002, Brighten is not bereft of heavier subject matter like self-doubt, loss and making amends.
“It’s referencing different shades and putting layers into things, so it’s not just all f–king monochrome like, ‘Hey, this is a happy song,’ or ‘Hey, this is a depressing song,’” says Cantrell. “It’s a mix of all sorts of things. It’s a body of work, and it definitely has an overall feel of energy and a little more light — but there’s also plenty of dark in there, too. Both are interlocked and important, and it just depends on what ratio you have in the ingredients in the mixing bowl.”
After Degradation Trip — which was dedicated to Alice in Chains frontman Layne Staley, who died of an overdose at age 34 two months before its release — Cantrell refocused on his main band. Alice in Chains delivered its fourth album, Black Gives Way to Blue, in 2009, followed by 2013’s The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here and 2018’s Rainier Fog. Post-Rainier Fog, Cantrell began assembling the nine tracks on Brighten by revisiting his backlog of songs previously demoed and shelved, fragments of melodies and riffs held over the years, a mix of new songs — and a cover of an Elton John deep cut — and started recording in 2020.
“Every record I’ve been in involved in has a couple of ideas that either weren’t in their best form or just didn’t fit with that body of work, and this record was the same,” says Cantrell. “There are some ideas I’ve been kicking around for a while and others that happened more spontaneously in the process. Filmmakers never get every film out when they want to do it. Some ideas have to sit for a while or wait for the right actor or producer. Music is no different.”
Co-produced with film composer Tyler Bates, whose credits cover 300, Sucker Punch and the John Wick franchise; engineered by Paul Fig, a fixture on the last three albums for Cantrell’s full-time band, Alice in Chains; and mixed by Joe Barresi (Queens of the Stone Age, Tool), most of Brighten was recorded prior to when the United States went into pandemic lockdown last year, with some drums and other instruments tracked remotely in 2020. Bates and Cantrell were simpatico on many levels, which Cantrell says helped Brighten come together more naturally.
“We relate to each other and have that same animalistic, stoner kid mentality of wanting to rock, just plug it in and let her fucking rip, and that sort of energy and force and joy you felt when you were a kid,” he says. “Maybe that’s something you don’t feel all the time when you’ve been doing this for a while, but I get to reconnect with it when I’m onstage and see people’s reaction. You have to do that for yourself once in a while, and it’s always good having somebody inspirational like Tyler sitting across from you — and he’s got a guitar in his hand and I’ve got one in mine.”
Cantrell enlisted an all-star team of musicians to round out his Brighten band, including Guns N’ Roses’ bassist Duff McKagan, Greg Puciato of Dillinger Escape Plan on backing vocals, drummers Abe Laboriel Jr. and Gil Sharone, producer Michael Rozon on pedal steel, Vincent Jones and Jordan Lewis on piano, strings by Matias Ambrogi-Torres, and Bates’ daughter Lola offering backing vocals on the acoustic-led “Black Hearts and Evil Done.”
“Everybody involved with this put their own little stamp on it,” says Cantrell. “I do my thing, and I do think that I do it pretty well, but I do not stand alone. It takes a whole team of people to get my idea to be as good as it can be.”
“Atone” sets the tone of Brighten, a convergence of bright and dim, tranquil and unsettled. With Cantrell singing “Hard times on the refugee/ Keep a sidesteppin’ over me/ Not sure but you think you might/ Can you see when there is no light,” the set opens with what Cantrell calls the “cornerstone track of the album,” conveying the light and the dark elements with prods of uncertainty on “Prism of Doubt” and the more vulnerable “Black Hearts and Evil Done” (“I want to feel something/Glisten like a sunrise”), “Nobody Breaks You” and the contemplative coasting of “Siren Song.”
With the songs all being written prior to 2020, the music didn’t absorb the more dismal energy of that year. But Cantrell can see how some of them began to resonate over time. “If it’s a good song, it’s a good song, and it’s going to relate to any time or period,” he says. “There have been times living throughout the last year and a half where I’ve been listening to the music and related it to the times, thinking, ‘Oh man, that totally could have been written about this or could speak to this,’ and that’s a sign of a good song.”
The more surprising Brighten offering is the last, and shortest, at under two minutes. A new rendition of Elton John’s “Goodbye” — the closing track off John’s 1971 release Madman Across the Water and bookend to opener “Tiny Dancer” — runs slightly longer (by seven seconds) than the original, with Cantrell’s signature vocal harmonizations keeping pace with the orchestrated finale.
When Cantrell spoke to John about doing the cover, the latter had forgotten what album the track was actually on and had to Google it, but immediately gave his blessing to use it. “He’s like, ‘I haven’t heard that song in forever,’” remembers Cantrell. “‘Absolutely use it on the record.’ The fact that I can even call a guy like that is pretty mind-blowing to the kid in me.”
Amazed by how naturally the final piece of Brighten fell into place, Cantrell can’t help but reiterate his admiration for John. “He’s an important artist to me,” he says. “You sometimes get to know a good handful of your influences, and if you’re lucky enough, you become friends with them. If you listen to the way the wind is blowing, it often tells you if you’re doing the right thing or if you’re in the right place or the wrong place. The fact that it’s [“Goodbye”] closing my nine-song record and it also closes Madman Across the Water, which is also a nine-song record, is just the cool little s–t in life that makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing.”
As Cantrell reflects on Brighten, he’s also proud of everything Alice in Chains has accomplished and the band’s place in time.
“First and foremost, my commitment has always been Alice,” he says. “But I’ve had the opportunity to make some cool records outside of the band with some really interesting, talented friends of mine, and that’s something that doesn’t get served while I’m working with Alice. We’re not going to play Degradation Trip or Boggy Depot on tour, nor should we. But it’s kind of cool to revisit all of that stuff.”
Cantrell looks back on his career that spans 34 years — starting at the forefront of grunge’s insurgence with Alice in Chains’ 1990 debut, Facelift — with pride. With the 30th anniversary of other defining albums of the era like Nirvana’s Nevermind, Pearl Jam’s Ten and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger all arriving this year, Cantrell notes that the music of that time is still relevant.
“People are still listening to these albums,” he says. “I still like listening to them, so whatever the f–k I was thinking back then, I was thinking right.”
Cantrell adds, “I was lucky enough to fall in with some other guys that felt the same way I was feeling, and we made a pretty good racket, and we’re still doing it. It’s still pretty amazing to me that I don’t have a straight gig, and I get to write tunes for people and myself, and I get to go pretty much anywhere in the world and stand on the stage for a few people that show up to watch me do it.”