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Album review: The Used – Heartwork

Fans of the old albums will get a lot from this release, but it’s modern enough to stand up to artists that are leading the way in alternative music in 2020   

What can be said about The Used that hasn’t already been said? They’ve been a cornerstone of the alternative rock scene for 20 years, have an extensive back catalogue and original emo/scene kids would still have a soft spot for many of their earlier songs that made their way onto emo playlists. 

Their sound has evolved over the years, with the last release, 2017’s ‘The Canyon’ almost a complete departure from their heavy roots. It had the usual raw, gut-wrenching lyrics and delivery but it was different and quieter. Speaking to Grater, vocalist and lyricist Bert McCracken said their latest offering ‘Heartwork’ feels like a return to their first two albums. Let’s see if that is the case.

The first two songs head back to traditional The Used sounds. Opener Paradise Lost starts with heavy guitars, gets straight into McCracken’s incredible vocals, has a huge chorus and bridge and new guitarist Joey Bradford shows his skills with an epic guitar solo. This song gets the listeners attention straight away. Next up is Blow Me which features Fever 333’s Jason Aalon Butler. It is fast-paced, has yet another huge chorus and very The Used type lyrics: “What if you found a gun / would you use it like I did / put a bullet in my head.” Dan Whiteside’s drumming in this song is relentless.

There are songs on the album that have the instantly recognisable The Used percussion sounds like BIG WANNA BE, 1984 (Infinite Jest) and Gravity’s Rainbow. The latter two will take the listener right back to emo The Used/ Panic! At the Disco era in their introductions. After the intro, 1984 (Infinite Jest) heads into a weird, minimal dub bridge and an industrial-sounding chorus but towards the end, there’s a beautiful piano, guitar strumming and vocal part. There are so many sections to this song; it may be a bit too chaotic. Gravity’s Rainbow is a highlight on the album and one of the most traditionally The Used-sounding songs. It has strings, a fantastic melody and chorus with incredible backing vocals. BIG WANNA BE is the more electronic of these three but is anthemic, inspirational and uplifting.

Another cool song on this album is Wow, I Hate This Song which is about how uninspiring some commercially played songs are and how songs can invoke terrible memories for listeners. This song sounds like it was made to emulate a pop song, but then McCracken’s vocals are screaming and heavy in parts, and the instrumentation is thrashing and loud. It’s like it is deliberately trying to sound terrible – like gross pop – a statement on commercial music.

The thing with this album is that it’s long – it has 16 songs.  This is something The Used often do, with many records being similar.  In 2020 though, the question is, is that too many for people to maintain focus? People are so used to short and sharp instant gratification and not having to concentrate for so long. But then maybe it’s good that artists are forcing us to listen to longer albums. The thing is though, this album almost seems to split in two. One part with traditional The Used rock and the other with electronic songs that, if not for McCracken’s voice, a listener wouldn’t even know it was The Used.

An example of this is Clean Cut Heals, which has an almost Flume style in the verses and such a catchy, poppy chorus that it could almost be someone like Maroon 5 or even Justin Timberlake. There’s Catherdral Bell that is very electronic and feels like its building to heaviness throughout the entire song. It doesn’t make it there though, and it’s almost unsatisfying and disappointing. This song sounds very different from everything else on the album. The Lighthouse is another really different sounding song that has thoughtful, slow verses with gorgeous guitar notes but has an electronic bridge that builds to the drop of a positive, poppy chorus. This song is fun and dancey in the chorus, and Jeph Howard’s bass line throughout is superb. Even Heartwork, which is the poetic, spoken word moment, has an electronic backing.

The album gets back to rock with the commercial and positive-sounding Obvious Blasé and the heavy and disjointed, tango-sounding The Lottery. Darkness Bleeds, FOTF which was a single (and a great song) is a mix of electronic and rock with yet another catchy, dancey bridge and chorus. It also has a heavy breakdown, some audience participation type yelling and leads into a beautiful piano, strings and vocal outro. This leads into the beautiful To Feel Something which has a slow and soulful start, gorgeous guitar, piano and even some cello.  It eventually starts to distort, and the electronic sounds take over. The song is about feeling something, and by its end, the listener can feel the pain and anguish the song evokes.  It is an incredible way to end the album. 

This album felt too long and could have been broken up into two shorter albums – the rock songs on one and the electronic songs on the other. Mixing the two types of songs means listeners have to give them all a chance and get out of their comfort zone. McCracken has said that the album can stand in a “streaming circle pit with Halsey and Kesha” and those influences are evident. Fans of the old albums will get a lot from this release, but it’s modern enough to stand up with artists that are leading the way in alternative music in 2020.   

FFO: Panic! At The Disco, Halsey, Flume

Heartwork is out April 24 via Big Noise

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