The Used, Artwork (2009)
Teen angst is a marketable emotion. Often in popular culture, angst is stigmatized, ignored, ridiculed. But it can easily be argued that angst is a part of the universal teenage experience, that everyone who has reached an age over thirteen has experienced some symptom of angst.
What makes angst valuable from a creative perspective is that it can be an extraordinary boon to art. The vast reservoirs of a person’s fragile, youthful depression can sometimes be a surprising view into the soul of a person who has not yet seen the life that may lay ahead of them.
However, angst becomes significantly less potent when it is overdone. And angst becomes significantly less potent and significantly more annoying when it’s overdone AND you’re being screamed at by a 27-year-old man.
The Used have been one of the more successful bands of their genre for several years now. Starting with their 2002 self-titled debut album, the band has been a flagship of the emo genre, pummeling their eager fans’ ears with hits like “Buried Myself Alive” and “All That I’ve Got.” They’re known for combining dark (one might say, melodramatic) lyrics with a hard rock sound overlain with well-crafted melodies and for staying true to their ardent following.
With their fourth studio effort, The Used has apparently decided that to grow as a band means to get heavier, messier, darker, and, frankly, shriller. The result is these 11 songs, which are replete with metal drums and thrashing guitars and kicking bass lines that all muddle together very noisily.
Singer Bert McCracken switches through what could be called a “range” of voices. There’s the whine- singing, which is usually very quiet and withdrawn, but most often he forgoes this method and chooses between a shout and a scream. Single/opener “Blood On My Hands” features all three of these vocal flavors, if you’d like a sampling. If not, you can just skip around. They don’t vary much from track to track.
The overall album is, at various points, either too in-your-face to be really artful or too grandiose to be interesting. There are ideas at work that have potential, like the piano-ballad opening to “Kissing You Goodbye” which could have been heartfelt but instead becomes ham-fisted and ends up simply lacking in imagination. “Empty With You” is probably the album’s best track, but the chorus is so standard that it could fit into any song on the album with just a slight key change.
In terms of lyrics, Artwork is almost devoid of anything resembling its title. There are 13-year-old poets around the country who could outclass lines like “So I’ve lost my mind/But I never really meant to die.” Incidentally, the song “Meant to Die” was, according to McCracken, inspired by the death of actor Heath Ledger. I’m sure the Ledger family is feeling closure at last.
I realize I’m being harsh on this album, but frankly there’s so little originality or life on this disc, especially compared to other bands in the same genre. And the best way to view this record is in the context of artists who have done the same things before, but better.
The Used is transparently and unsuccessfully copping from several bands, including Circa Survive and Coheed and Cambria. The latter made a similar but arguably more successful hard rock transformation back in 2005. The former features Alex Green, arguably the best singer in the emo genre, and someone who McCracken clearly wishes he could emulate. The guitar and vocal work at the beginning of “Blood on My Hands” and “Men Are All The Same” even owe a great deal to popular metal acts such as Avenged Sevenfold, who themselves are hardly groundbreaking rock musicians.
Similar arguments could of course be made about countless emo, post-hardcore, and screamo bands that aren’t as visible or don’t have the fan-friendly goodwill of The Used. And I’m not saying The Used can’t be a good band, or that they’ve never been. And surely, there will be a huge listenership for Artwork who will absorb it at length for weeks, months or, who knows, years.
But I would encourage fans of this genre, and of this band, to explore better alternatives and seek out someone who might actually be pushing the boundaries a bit, or at the very least allowing themselves to grow up. Because a band that never grows up is like a person who never grows up: Immature.
(This review previously appeared in the Minnesota State University Reporter: http://media.www.msureporter.com/media/storage/paper937/news/2009/09/03/Music/Useds.Latest.Release.Hardly.Art-3762765.shtml?reffeature=popuarstoriestab )