Now turning 15, The Used’s 2004 sophomore ‘In Love and Death’ may very well be one of their most important releases, yet it’s got nothing on their best album: ‘Artwork.’
When I say that The Used’s fourth album, 2009’s ‘Artwork,’ is an “ugly” record, that’s actually a compliment. Its ugliness is by far its greatest strength; that was and is its best distinction. After all, there’s a very good reason as to why the band self-labeled it as ‘gross pop’ before it’s release ten years ago: it was the pop sensibilities we all knew and loved from The Used, but now seen through a twisted, sinister new lens. Now a decade later, it’s still their crowning achievement as a collective.
Sandwiched between one of The Used’s biggest albums – 2007’s ‘Lies for the Liars‘ – and one of their weaker, more forgotten releases – 2012’s ‘Vulnerable‘ – ‘Artwork‘ is it’s own thing; it’s a beast of an album. It was and still remains the darkest, heaviest, noisiest, and messiest the group had ever sounded, but surprisingly, them at their catchiest too. The Used always excelled at merging together hook-driven alt-rock, angsty post-hardcore, and pop music subtleties; you can see this all over the sound and songwriting of their first two records. Yet on ‘Artwork,’ we see the most potent combination of these styles colliding together in a warm embrace. In some ways, this album was almost too good for The Used. A release that was far better than what many people would ever expect from their scene or a band like them. As its such a well-made and well-curated record: all killer, no filler. It was light years ahead of their contemporaries back then, with only a few exceptions.
To me, ‘Artwork‘ always felt like an album informed by their previous records; what they got right and what they didn’t. It didn’t need to experiment much, only pool the best of what they’re first three albums did, and that’s exactly what it does as a record. It’s burning with that timeless angst and the rage of their self-titled debut, just now a bit more aged and thoughtful; it contained the world-class chorus melodies and hooks of ‘In Love & Death‘ but dialed them all the way up; it used that stranger darkness and slicker electronic production that permeated ‘Lies for the Liars‘ yet implemented it all more naturally. It’s a hyper-polished album in terms of mixing and recording quality, and features numerous over-dubs, electro parts, and samples, yet never once to the distraction or detriment of the actual songs. A balance that can be so damned hard to get right for most artists, yet producer Matt Squire and The Used walked that tight-rope perfectly here. And my god, there’s just so much to love about these 11 songs!
Killer late-game cuts like ‘Meant To Die‘ and ‘The Best Of Me‘ showcased a more violent, deranged heavy rock sound, with early album highlights ‘Blood On My Hands‘ and ‘Born To Quit‘ preluding this chaos with as much riff energy from Quinn Allman and Bert McCracken’s super-confident choruses. The careening riffs and metal overtones of ‘The Best Of Me‘ make for one of the heaviest Used songs ever tracked; a mosh-pit ignitor. During the snappy pop-punk of ‘Meant To Die‘ – inspired by the untimely death of Heath Ledger – this glitchy electronic bridge part leads into a grim breakdown, lead by Bert’s brother, Joseph, screaming “never stay forever.” Yet ‘Watered Down‘ and ‘Empty With You‘ then saw the poppier sides of the band shine right through this gloom, making for these intimate and infectious, ear-worming numbers that show exactly why countless people fell in love with their music to begin with. And then there’s the urgent, anthemic, and classic Used sound being reworked into fresh gold mines like ‘Come Undone,’ ‘Sold My Soul,’ and ‘On The Cross,’ with some added production flourishes to bring them to life.
It’s no secret that The Used love to bring out the acoustic guitar and the piano; they’re no strangers to an occasional ballad. Which is where the delicate and dynamic ‘Kissing You Goodbye‘ comes in; one of the best ballads they’ve ever written in their time. Cleverly, the “I’m not leaving” refrain from ‘Kissing You Goodbye‘ later returns as a brief reprisal part in its sister-track, the brooding closer ‘Men Are All The Same,’ after a noisy connecting passage before the real outro hits. There’s seriously never a dull moment to be had on ‘Artwork‘, with each song having its own thing to share, all flowing brilliantly into the next. Every proud chorus here stands as its own memorable entity.
‘Artwork‘ is such an interesting record because it’s clear just how personal it was to the quartet. It was an album of firsts for The Used. At the time, it was their first album with drummer Dan Whitesides, their first record at the time where they didn’t work with John Feldman (thank god), and their first release on Reprise. Going deeper beyond the personnel and business surface, it’s a record about coming to terms with your self, your mortality, your mistakes, your wounds, and the art you create and what means. It’s about self-criticism, the relationships you form (and break), and about really bleeding for your work. Hence why we get that somewhat edgy and graphic front cover of a person carving out “artwork” into their wrist – it’s a part of them, the only thing that matters.
When speaking with bassist Jeph Howard back in late 2016 while they were in Australia, I distinctly remember him telling me that “Artwork was a whole other thing” when I brought up how each new Used record had a different context and feel surrounding it. He didn’t say anything further than that; the shortest response given to me regarding their older albums too. Even though the follow up to this amazing record is called ‘Vulnerable,’ its ‘Artwork‘ that displayed the highest level vulnerability for The Used. Maybe that’s why they wish to forget it exists; the painful memory of what was going on around them when they brought it into the world endured with the record. Because this album sold well and was critically received well too, so it’s not that it was unpopular with their fans or media, more so that its creators wished to move on quickly after its release due to personal, contextual matters.
The Used were a victim to the success of their larger singles, in a way. As now very few of their newer songs or their deeper cuts bar maybe ‘Listening‘ cop a fair chance of being played and getting the spotlight. Not when massive fucking songs like ‘I Caught Fire,’ ‘Bird and the Worm,’ and ‘The Taste Of Ink‘ exist in their extensive library. While I love that trio of songs as much as the next person, they’re dominating tracks that have consumed much of the band’s other materials worth, like some kind of ravenous emo blob hell-bent on making you remember the good ol’ days of the early or mid-2000s. Because The Used came from a weird time period of rock music that valued bigger, singular singles over good, complete albums. As now the only ‘Artwork‘ track anyone is lucky enough to see performed live is opener ‘Blood On My Hands,’ and that’s a terrible shame given the consistency and exceptional songwriting behind this black sheep of a record.
‘Artwork‘ may not feature the biggest hits of The Used’s entire career, but as a whole, it’s their finest hour as a band. And I’ll go to my grave singing the high-praises of this underrated gem. Trust me, it’s better than you could ever recall.