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Since the days of ‘Vulnerable‘ (2011), The Used have made no secret of their growth and artistry as a band. A freeing process they’ve done by not shying away from new trends, embracing more pop ideas and electronics, and not looking to rehash their storied, accomplished past too much. As the XIX Roman Numeral atop this new album’s cover notifies, The Used have been at this for quite some time. Nineteen years, in fact. And one cannot spend almost two decades doing the exact same thing over and over. (Well, unless your every second punk rock band signed to Epitaph or Fat Wreck, but that’s beside the point.) However, once again produced by John Feldman, ‘Heartwork‘ splits me down the middle, hence the above rating, with plenty of things I love but also with multiple moments that I loathe or heavily question. For even if it’s inconsistent, the shell of a great band is still a pretty competent husk that more than has its occasional merits.
‘Paradise Lost, a poem by John Milton‘ – inspired by one such work by said English poet- reveals that no matter their musical adventurousness, no matter what things are said leading up to a new record, and no matter what weirder sonic directions things may turn in, you can safely bet that The Used will still pump out a solid rock’n’roll number or two. This first songs’ belting hook from Bert McCracken of “paradise lost in your eyes, I know you better than anyone” isn’t just a well-written and well-delivered refrain, but one of the album’s better-delivered choruses too. Even if it’s introductory riff sounds like a sped-up version of Save The Day’s ‘Anywhere With You.’ Easily the best part of ‘Blow Me is when Jason Aalon Butler (y’all know what other bands he’s in, I don’t need to mention them) makes this rowdy rock tune his utter bitch during the bridge and that final fist-swinging breakdown when The Used get their hardcore on. It’s right here, when they’re put next to each other, that you really hear just how much power and character these two vocalists exude, from Bert’s clean singing to Jason’s hectic screaming, making for what is hands down the album’s best guest feature.
While ‘Blow Me‘ does admittedly sound a little like the band trying to reclaim some of their more relevant early days, it fairs better than the next batch of borderline-disastrous songs that follow. ‘BIG, WANNA BE‘ may have a clever little title but any kind of charm it may have had is nowhere to be seen in the song itself beyond that moniker. The bleaty synths, clanking percussion, mid-tempo mood, and washes of distortion all aim to be bigger than life, as the lyrics themselves put it, but it all feels quite hollow; never growing beyond what the first verse and first chorus give you, no real pay-off. Sounding like a weak B-side off of ‘Lies For The Liars‘ (2007) the dissonant ‘Bloody Nose‘ is the exact same, going barely anywhere in its three-minute run-time, no matter how many strings slip into the arrangement as it goes on. ‘Bloody Nose‘ is one of those moments that feels like we’re getting a husk of what The Used once did so well. Then there’s the strange fifth song, ‘Wow, I Hate This Song,’ which sounds like a bastardized take on the “gross-pop” sound the band was nailing over ten years ago, with way too much going on with the backing screams, complete with super cheesy la-la-la’s making it feel overly saccharine. Wow, I Dislike This Sorely Average Song From A Great Band Who Can Do So Much Better.
Once the chime-filled one-minute interlude of ‘My Cocoon‘ ends (the intro music heard in the ‘Paradise Lost‘ video), there’s a noticeable shift in the LP. In some ways, it’s like a cocoon has been broken free from as we receive the best that ‘Heartwork‘ has to offer. Even if it’s only for a few songs. Nicely building on the softer vibe of ‘My Cocoon,’ we get ‘Cathedral Bell.’ The Used have made many forrays into pop over the years, but ‘Cathedral Bell‘ is their best attempt. These guys have never been afraid of their pop sensibilities and their embrace of such elements here is one of their finest, most successful pop iterations yet. ‘Cathedral Bell,’ with its harp runs, sexy vocals, and moody finger-snaps, is one of the biggest grower-not-a-shower tracks from ‘Heartwork‘ but once it clicks, it’s hard to let it go.
Changing musical shapes again, with an on-edge tone and skittish guitars, ‘Infinite Jest (1984)‘ is the album’s coolest song by miles: dark and dystopian, it sonically captures that Orwellian paranoia perfectly, with lyrical references to their 2014 album ‘Imaginary Enemy‘ and even ‘The Black Parade.’ From the intro, Bert’s vocals are synced-up with a pizzicato violin accompaniment that both move in tandem, as his hyped-up heavy breathing and sinister whispers of “ignorance is this” all push the track towards the biggest grooves and heaviest riffs found on the whole bloody LP. It’s great stuff! No two ways about it, ‘Gravity’s Rainbow‘ – inspired by Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 fiction novel of the same name about the design, production, and rollout of the V-2 rockets during WWII – is the grandest track of the lot. With by far the greatest string arrangements found on all of this new full-length, the way that this song shifts between a killer soft-and-loud, rock-and-orchestral dynamic is superb, as is the war-time imagery conjured up by bleak lyrics of loss, sorrow, hellfire, emergency, and evacuations. Now this is The Used that I love.
‘Clean Cut Heals‘ is a mess and I cannot tell you whether I like it not. Because after many repeat listens, I still don’t know how to feel about it; a sentiment that best encompasses my feelings about ‘Heartwork‘ overall. All I can tell you is this: ‘Clean Cut Heals‘ is definitely music; it’s most certainly vibrations in the air. From the 808s and pitchy synths, the electro hi-hats and hand-claps, the slapped bass and funk riffs, to Bert’s crooning vocals that feel way uncomfortably close, it’s the poppiest and simplest song of these 16 tracks. Moving on, the hymn-samples and Church vibe of the title track is an interesting tone-setter, but even more interesting is its sudden left turn into slam-poetry about the beauty, importance, and “violence” of kindness just seconds into it. Say whatever you want about The Used these days, but they’re still surprising us nearly two decades in.
As is this album’s trend, and in another jarring quality shift for ‘Heartwork,’ Mark Hoppus‘ appearance on the ‘The Lighthouse‘ kick starts what is one of the most inconsistent three-track runs found on ‘Heartwork.’ Whereas fellow Blink-182 peer, Travis Barker features on ‘Obvious Blasé‘ though you may not even notice his parts at first, and Beartooth’s Caleb Shomo showing up on ‘The Lottery.’ But let’s get back to the ‘The Lighthouse.’ Marky Mark sings in the bridge, sounding like everything else the Blink-182/+44 singer does vocally, and this oddly funky song is no better because of his inclusion; a disposable, questionable pop-rock song that I find nearly impossible to care about. I’m convinced that ‘Obvious Blasé‘ is some kind of self-aware joke, as it’s very much a ‘blasé‘; this style of angsty major-key pop-punk is something we’ve heard from The Used before. With upbeat, distorted chord progressions and Bert’s vocals snorting lines of teen poetry with lyrics of “six feet in my guilt, broken hinges on my casket” and “playing with matches, we knew this would happen,” ‘Obvious Blasé‘ easily could’ve been lifted from their first two records. Although, it’s damn catchy and I cannot fault for what it is: a fun little emo number. The Used either wrote a Beartooth-sounding track and then brought Caleb Shomo in, or initially wanted to feature the Beartooth frontman somewhere on this record, so they reverse-engineered what is basically a Beartooth song. Yet like any of the bland rock/hardcore tracks off ‘Disease,’ ‘The Lottery‘ is completely forgettable, try as the band might excite with it’s dissonant and angular yet generic and expected breakdown come the end. I don’t like Beartooth nowadays, and that’s not going to change when mixed in with the blood of The Used.
Though what is very exciting is ‘Darkness Bleeds, FOTF‘ (FOTF meaning “fire of the flood”), one of the most experimental songs to come from ‘Heartwork.’ It’s also one of the best four minutes of the entire record too! The trance-like synth melody that moves in the background and the rapid, almost-jungle beats allow the band to rocket off into an eruptive alt-rock stratosphere, one that’s really well-done. Not ending there, the choir gang-vocal that roars away after the last chorus before things suddenly turn into a subversive, lo-fi ballad is just excellent songwriting, keeping me right on my toes. Closer ‘To Feel Something‘ begins life out as an acoustic ballad, but before you know it, it morphs into a dynamic noise-rock send-off that is so damn cool. What was first pretty and serene soon becomes chaotic as noisy, over-distorted synths fire off around layered screams, big drum hits, and heavy cymbals crashes. In these two final scenes of ‘Heartwork,’ we see that while it does feel like the band is just throwing all manner of shit at the wall, hoping it will all stick on good, when ideas do actually stick, it’s fantastic stuff.
Whenever I see the title of ‘Heartwork’ I think about my most cherished Used album, ‘Artwork‘ (2009), and how I could be listening to that record instead. When I see the cover to ‘Heartwork, I, like so many others, think about ‘In Love & Death’ (2004), but also how I could be listening to that album as opposed to this latest entry. Despite a handful of well-written and bold songs, this album is all over the place. There was an amazing record in here, somewhere. Past all of the cultured song titles of literary works that the band enjoys; beyond the admittedly catchy choruses and melodies The Used have a knack for producing. The Used’s penchant for musical open-mindedness is absolutely commendable, and I love how you can hear all four of the band member’s tastes spread out over this record; rock, pop, funk, electronica, acoustic, noise, orchestral, and more. Yet with filler noticeably felt and an equal measure of hits and misses, ‘Heartwork’ is sometimes questionable and worn thin, despite it being a mostly comforting sonic road-map of everywhere the group has previously charted. With forgettable and uneventful guest features – with the sole exception of the talented Jason Butler on ‘Blow Me’ – that don’t move their respective songs forward, and at an over-long 16 tracks (cut down from its original 27), things either feel unnecessary or extremely self-indulgent. Of course, the silver lining is that a diverse record such as this is infinitely more interesting than if ‘Heartwork’ was just The Used lazily giving us 16 pop-punk/emo songs circa the sounds of 2002-2004. Swings and roundabouts.
1. Paradise Lost, a poem by John Milton
2. Blow Me (feat. Jason Aalon Butler)
3. BIG, WANNA BE
4. Bloody Nose
5. Wow, I Hate This Song
6. My Cocoon
7. Cathedral Bell
8. 1984 (infinite jest)
9. Gravity’s Rainbow
10. Clean Cut Heals
12. The Lighthouse (feat. Mark Hoppus)
13. Obvious Blasé (feat. Travis Barker)
14. The Lottery (feat. Caleb Shomo)
15. Darkness Bleeds, FOTF
16. To Feel Something
‘Heartwork’ is out now: