When details of The Canyon were first announced, skepticism rightfully followed. Considering The Used’s 2010s output has consisted of a largely mediocre effort in 2012’s Vulnerable and the worst album they’ve ever released with 2014’s Imaginary Enemy, The Canyon feels like the band addressing the shortcomings of both of those albums and shifting their efforts to a significantly more adventurous one, one comprising of seventeen tracks running for an hour-and-a-half that sees a hard pivot away from their typical turn-of-the-millennium emo into the world of art-rock and progressive post-hardcore.
It takes a while to really tap into what The Canyon wants to do, but when it does click, it feels all the more appropriate that The Used have chosen now to try something like this, considering the album that comes to mind more than any other is Brand New’s Science Fiction. Both represent the push for their respective artists to a new creative peak, as well as a fairly drastic change in sound, but also the sort of deeply intrusive, unedited soul-searching that such an enormous scope demands. If anything, The Used’s move into this path feels all the more startling – at least with Brand New there’s always been the attrition wearing away beneath the surface that needed to come out eventually; The Used have seemed comfortable where they are for the longest time now, but with The Canyon, there’s a lot to be unpackaged that already sets this in the upper reaches of this band’s catalogue.
Just like with Science Fiction, a vast amount of that stems from Bert McCracken’s own purging, stemming from the loss of a friend that’s still very fresh on the acoustic opener For You that transpires to the thoughts of a man very clearly teetering on the edge. Lyrics are belched out in the form of elaborate metaphors and non-sequiturs, darting across the map to relate to overseas strife on Selfies In Aleppo and The Quiet War (the extract of George Orwell’s Homage To Catalonia making the former ever more poignant) to McCracken reaching deep into himself and wrenching out whatever he can on Cold War Telescreen and Over And Over Again. It’s a profoundly anxious album, refusing to keep still even within the confines of a single song and only ever solidifying when the memories of that friend come up once again, with the lingering image of their bedroom on Upper Falls or the final dedication on About You (No Songs Left To Sing).
That all may seem like a mess on paper, not helped by that excessive length that’s been the primary talking point since this album’s announcement, but that’s really the point. The Canyon isn’t designed as an easy listen, rather as a vehicle for McCracken to blow out his many demons in the sort of artless fashion that makes for The Used’s most raw album to date. For a band who found their feet conforming to such a well-defined zeitgeist, The Canyon is as great an attempt to break away from that as you’re likely to get, and while the glossy production remains as a tie (perhaps a bit too glossy on occasion, like with Moon-Dream‘s favouring of a stately orchestral instrumental rather than anything a bit meatier), The Used can convincingly stand as a band with exposed edges and real emotion on display. That’s perhaps The Canyon‘s greatest strength, how unflinchingly real it sounds; the weaknesses and thinner qualities in McCracken’s vocal work on a track like Broken Windows only adds to its overall impact, and their greater fluidity and unhinged stylings almost reach a point of literalism with the cackles and vocalisations that break through Rise Up Lights and The Divine Absence (This Is Water).
As for the instrumentation, it goes without saying that The Canyon is arguably the biggest departure in The Used’s discography to date. Gone is any of the straightforward emo and post-hardcore of their early material, or even the electronica of Imaginary Enemy, replaced by deeply nuanced prog and alt-rock in the vein of Coheed And Cambria or Night Verses. It certainly meshes well with such a forward-thinking lyrical bent, taking the raw, click track-free recording sessions, augmenting them with dashes of strings and choral vocals for easily the most grand and potent statement of The Used’s career. Like with the vocals, there’s total naturality here, whether that’s the thick basslines of Pretty Picture and Funeral Post, the hard rock riffs of Vertigo Cave and The Nexus or the swaying, sweeping closer The Mouth Of The Canyon, which rounds off such a profoundly brave album in the strongest fashion.
In reality though, words really don’t do justice for what The Used do on The Canyon. This is an album that needs to be experienced to believe it, and explored to the fullest extent to get a grasp on every bit of borderline genius on offer. It’s without question the boldest statement this band have ever made, and for longtime fans it mightn’t sit well, but this is an album that sees a band at the utmost peak of their power, laying themselves totally bare in a way they’ve never even hinted that they’re capable of, and coming out the other side with an experimental, truly brilliant album. For a band who’ve been running on fumes for far too long, The Canyon is such a definitive statement of how excellent The Used can really be; after this, it would be foolish to write them off again.
For fans of: At The Drive In, letlive., Night Verses
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘The Canyon’ by The Used is released on 27th October on Hopeless Records.