Jerry Cantrell Signals Change In Tone On Third Solo LP ‘Brighten’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Brighten is the third solo album from Alice in Chains co-founder Jerry Cantrell and the first since Degradation Trip in 2002. In terms of composition and tone, Brighten marks the biggest departure from Cantrell’s signature sound, taking his music in a new direction that has few similarities to his other work.

The album was recorded over a year with the help of session musicians ranging from bassist Duff McKagan (Guns N’ Roses) to vocalist Greg Puciato (Dillinger Escape Plan). The most obvious stylistic departure is the lack of Cantrell’s recognizable sludgy guitar tone. Even the album’s heavier moments don’t have that sinister, droning sound. Other Cantrell staples, such as odd time signatures, palm muting, and wah pedal, are used sparingly or not at all.  

But Cantrell has always varied his styles, incorporating elements of metal, funk, blues, and folk into Alice in Chains’ sound and experimenting with psychedelia and country in his solo work. Brighten is aptly named, though, because the biggest departure for Cantrell is trading his usual gloom, depression, and cynicism for a more positive, even uplifting tone.    

“Push back on the darkness in which you damn well like to play,” Cantrell sings in the title track, offering a mission statement for the album. The song is uptempo rock and roll every bit as bright as the title indicates with the exception of the low, sinister riff of the bridge. 

That sense of optimism permeates the sonic palette, from the folksy power ballad “Prism of Doubt” to the mid-tempo casual rock of “Nobody Breaks You.” In the country ballad “Black Hearts and Evil Done,” Cantrell sings of living an empty life, but that bleakness is met with a desire to change. “I want to feel something, something alive,” he sings while softly strumming a down-tuned acoustic guitar backed by twangy pedal steel.

But it is still a Jerry Cantrell album, so darkness and musical tension find their way through cracks in the pleasant facade. “Atone” is a dark, brooding western. Cantrell’s vocals are haunting as they mesh with a dusty open-tuned acoustic lick built around twangy string bends. The propulsive stomp leads to an increasingly dark chorus overpowered by menacing distorted guitar. “I want to believe I’ll never drown, can ascend,” Cantrell sings. But unlike most of the album, that sentiment is met with cynicism. “No release or reprieve to be found.”

The swampy “Siren Song” is one of Brighten’s best tracks, melding clean arpeggiated acoustic guitar with a filthy Delta blues lead lick, all driven by a dirty McKagan bass groove. “And when the day is done, think on the things I’ve done, holding a piece you left inside,” Cantrell sings. Though the song uses imagery of being lost, adrift, and indecisive, it’s done to show the anchoring stability love can provide. “In my dark you are my light; carry you with me in my soul,” he sings. 

“Had To Know” is the closest Bright comes to his old style, Cantrell’s crunching guitar charging the heavy rocker. It’s also the most musically complex, shifting between fast power chord riffs and slow, distorted arpeggios. 

Photo Credit: Jonathan Weiner

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