The universe of The Used is made up of outsiders and loners of a certain disposition. The band is fighting the world and their feelings of guilt and rage in the bright lights of mainstream success and adulation. This character analysis isn’t a damnation, rather an understanding nod toward their predicament. No band has such a balancing act as the guys from Utah do: They are the poster boys for feelings of inadequacy and stifling inability. They, through whatever machinations, have become the kings of the glittering cesspool of modern rock. But despite their status, their latest album Artwork is disappointing.
As a believer in their hectic and scrambled beginnings on their self-titled debut, I followed along into the painfully mundane themed, yet wholly energetic, In Love and Death. After skipping No. 3, the expectations for this effort were minimal: loud, chaotic rock with underdeveloped and immature themes expressed in their trademark depressive rage. The album simply had to follow in some kind of ascending arc toward something new and offbeat. What we get is an album of uninspired track after uninspired track. Whether it’s “Blood On My Hands”, sounding like a prepubescent garage band (in a bad way) version of Iron Maiden, or “November Rain” without the sincerity or supernova sensibility that was “Kissing You Goodbye”, the band shot for the greats and came out sounding weak, indecisive, and wholly inferior. It doesn’t help that any experimentation they attempted is self-censored. With tracks like “Come Undone”, which starts like pounding ’80s synth rock, and “Meant To Die” and its spin on muffled voices and semi-musical feedback and distortion, you almost see a revitalized sound emerge. Sadly, both almost instantly break down into cliched guitar work and singer Bert McCracken’s awful voice that sounds like so many other non-singer frontmen.
Not helping the situation is the band’s lyrical decisions. While songs like “Blue & Yellow” and “Take It Away” are well-crafted and somewhat intelligent — even artsy in a written-by-a-twenty-something kind of sense, Artwork is full of lines like “I’ll be the end you deserve.” This undoubtedly stems from the band’s desire to please hardened fans who are looking for an outlet that is as base as can be. And while nostalgia is a beautiful thing if you’re Creedence Clearwater Revival, it’s killing the mythos of The Used. With each album that gets released, another part of the story is told. Some fans, from a kind of literary standpoint, want maturation and a genuine story arc that ascends toward newfound truths and better ways to explore life as an outcast. True musical success isn’t all about pleasing the same people with the same concepts and chords each time. Kids that have followed the band since their debut in 2002 aren’t the teens in the back of the club anymore. They’ve been through struggles and hardships along with the band. It begs the question of “When are you no longer the sad emo boys?” and “When do you snatch up the chance to change the musical dynamic and inspire confidence?” or “When do you give another venue to your fans other than depression that has to be swallowed and doled out in panicky bursts?” There’s a point where even the metal gods of yore attempted to be something more, something of a motivator and a purveyor of culture and identity, which instills strength. When will The Used do just that?
Each and every issue with the album stems from the removal of one simple concept: the band’s pop sensibility. In an October 2008 interview with Alternative Press, McCracken said, “In the past, we’ve always kind of brought pop sensibility into heavy rock, but this is going to be all that much more tantalizing and brutal. Our songs are 10 times messier and noisier than they’ve ever been.” They’ve gotten rid of producer John Feldmann of Goldfinger, whose pop-punk/ska sensibility gave the band that desired to be so dark and gloomy their most sinister musical edge. That pop feel gives them some distance and demonstrates to the audience a lighter side; being poppy shows fans they can laugh at their pain and handle it with hopes for the future. This creates a rich emotional landscape. Going for the most noisy and messy sound is a massive step back and should have been attempted before developing a truly intelligent and listenable sound with their previous works. In all, Artwork will be an album for the hardcore fans. Any lukewarm fans or recent converts should avoid this album and find themselves some other false idols to anoint in guyliner and worship.