Alice In Chains – “Man in the Box” Lyrics Meaning

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Written By Brendan Briggs

Brendan is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer. In 2022, he released his first album "Dive" under the name "Arctotherium".

“Man in the Box” is a poetic description of a man who is sinking into corruption. The lyrics focus on the man’s disgust at himself, his pleas for deliverance, and the hopelessness of his situation. The lyrics are vague and can be applied to many areas, but self-loathing and uncertainty about reality are two major themes.

While Jerry Cantrell is credited as the composer for the track, Layne Staley was the lyricist. Staley has confirmed that the song is related to censorship. It was also reportedly inspired by animal mistreatment, which Staley became aware of through some vegetarian friends. Staley was using drugs heavily during the creative process, which also may have influenced his creation.

In this article, we’ll take a look at these grim lyrics to decipher their hidden meaning. We’ll also examine the songwriting story and the dark thematic appeal that gives this song its staying power. Without further ado, let’s get started!

“Man in the Box” Lyrics Meaning

Staley starts the lyrics by introducing himself as the “man in the box.” This box is a grim “pit” that Staley wants salvation from. He asks, “won’t you come and save me,” but the person this question is intended for is unknown at this point.

He continues addressing this unknown person, asking them to “feed” his eyes. This is most likely a metaphor for showing Staley the truth – a way out of his hopeless situation. However, the background vocalists reply to Staley with a chilling rhetorical question: “Can you sew them shut?”

The background voices appear to represent a second voice or character. Whether this is a voice in Staley’s head or a separate being is uncertain. However, it definitely contradicts Staley’s conscious intentions and thoughts. Staley wants to be enlightened and free, but this other voice wants him to be permanently blind.

Next, Staley famously screams out “Jesus Christ,” which is often mistaken for a simple exclamation. However, the context shows that Staley is seriously calling out to Jesus for help. The background voices reply, telling him, “deny your maker.” Simply put, this is a man in an intense state of inner conflict.

These lines are also the reason why many consider the song blasphemous. Some would even go so far as to say that Alice in Chains is a satanic band in general. While it’s a matter of conscience as to whether Staley’s use of “Jesus Christ” here is disrespectful, the second claim is fairly unfounded. Jesus is being painted as a deliverer in these lyrics, but some corrupt force or thought wants Staley to deny Him.

The last pair of lines in the chorus reflects Staley’s submission to defeat. He starts the sentence, and the background voices finish it, indicating he’s given himself over. He complains that “he who tries will be wasted,” meaning his resistance is futile. The situation is too horrific, the truth is too far away, and he is completely lost.

Jerry Cantrell once shed some light on the real commentary behind this dark picture. He confirmed that the song is about “how the media controls the public’s perception of events.” This allows them to “build you into a box” if you let it – the song describes a desperate attempt to escape.

In the second verse, Staley calls himself the “dog who gets beat.” He is now completely a victim, not a fighter. After this, the chorus simply repeats until the end of the song. The deceptive forces that keep Staley confined to his box are too powerful. His cries for help are in vain.

In summary, “Man in the Box” is about an individual trapped in confusion and gloom. Malicious forces keep him there by making sure he stays blind, and he is unable to overcome them. The grim message of this track, combined with its undeniable riff, gives it a certain dark appeal that has kept it in the public’s ears for an impressive amount of time.

The Story Behind “Man in the Box”

Layne Staley has given a fairly straightforward account of the inspiration for this song. At the time of its creation, he was a heavy drug user. While this influenced his creative process, he has agreed with Cantrell that the song is “loosely” about censorship and the control of information.

However, there is another piece to the full story. According to one interview given to Rolling Stone, Staley based the imagery in the lyrics on the perspective of “a doomed calf.”

The story goes that Staley was eating with some vegetarian colleagues, who told him how veal is made. He became fixated on the image of a helpless calf trapped in a box while being force-fed. When he combined this idea with the theme of censorship, a dark picture emerged that became the lyrics we know today.

Apparently, the public approved of his final product. This grammy-nominated jam is considered one of the definitive Alice in Chains tracks and continues to receive impressive airplay. Critically and commercially, it can only be called a success.

The next time you play this grunge classic, let these little bits of background information make it even more special!