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Jerry Cantrell - Brighten (Album Review)

Monday, 22 November 2021 Written by Simon Ramsay

Whether it’s with Alice In Chains, or as a solo artist, Jerry Cantrell’s music always resides in the vast grey realm located between rigid notions of black and white. Exploring internal and external battles with unflinching candour, he’s a songwriter who understands that we’re complex souls driven by conflicting elements. A cinematic, stylistically surprising and ultimately uplifting trip through that dramatic landscape, ‘Brighten’ is a feast for the senses.

There aren’t many musicians who possess an instantly recognisable sound. Whether it’s his drop-tuned Sabbath guitar attack, Delta-dredging vocals or hypnotic harmonies, Cantrell’s aesthetic could be picked out of a musical line up from a thousand paces. The grunge icon’s first solo record since 2002’s ‘Degradation Trip’ might find him revelling in the vintage sounds of 1970s Americana, rock ‘n’ roll and country, but it’s still shot through with enough recognisable motifs to create a compelling merger of eras and styles.

Boasting an impressive cast of supporting characters, each song delivers a wealth of sonic detail. Alongside bassist Duff McKagan, Dillinger Escape Plan’s Greg Puciato on backing vocals and drummers Gil Sharone and Abe Laboriel Jr, everything from pedal steel, Wurlitzer and organ to piano and strings have been deployed to manifest the lyrics’ multifarious sentiments. And thanks to exceptional production from Tyler Bates, a warm clear mix courtesy of Joe Barresi, and Cantrell operating as something of a musical painter, one evocative, imagery-rich canvas follows the next.  

Imagining the ominous magnitude of an Ennio Morricone score accompanying the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Atone rides a sinister mid-tempo Alice In Chains gallop, enriched by a menacing twang and climaxing with a heart-stopping tempo change and piercing slide screams. The equally filmic Siren Song, which nods to Metallica’s The Unforgiven, is a gothic fever dream, where swirling harmonies swoop like vultures underneath its hook.

Incorporating plenty of Cantrell’s formative influences, there’s a swaggering Lynyrd Skynyrd groove to the title track, its luminous chorus counterpointed by doomy grit as the singer warns “you only reap what you sow”.  The effervescent Prism Of Doubt has a cheery Mott The Hoople shine, Had to Know rocks like early ‘80s Tom Petty, replete with Refugee Hammond blast, and Black Hearts and Evil Done pines for a better life over an acoustic slice of Nashville bliss.

Possibly the most classically melodic record of Cantrell’s career, every song is an earworm delight. Delivered with an often easy going vibe that lends a resilient streak of hope, the singer’s trek through such a perilous emotional territory finds him striving to make amends, jettison past indiscretions and negotiate the hazardous world around him, while offering a little love to his own worst enemy.  

When he sagely states, “Nobody breaks you, like you in your heart, no one could write a more self-hating part” during another song that juxtaposes tortured sentiments with upbeat music, you’ll want to go a little easier on yourself too. Ending perfectly with a ghostly cover of Elton John’s Goodbye, this nine track effort is everything you’d want from an album inspired by one of music’s greatest decades. 

Superbly sequenced, pleasingly varied, thematically coherent and, thanks to its auteur’s unique creative stamp, immediately identifiable, ‘Brighten’ is an album for people who understand life will often hit them like a hurricane, yet still find the strength to walk though the storm with their heads held high.

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