The last time The Used released an album was in 2017 with The Canyon, a vast departure into experimental rock that, to put it bluntly, didn’t sit well with most people. Even if the album did have its brilliance at the time, the product of a band who’d been previously stagnating in their post-hardcore guise moving on to something new with bold and unflinching results, it’s not the sort of album that prevails over time, and now The Canyon has effectively fallen into the pit of forgettable late-period work from The Used alongside its older siblings Vulnerable and Imaginary Enemy. From the looks of things, it would seem that the band are actively trying to push the focus away from those albums as well, and forge connections with their 2000s work that’s viewed a lot more highly to this day. For one, there’s something so quintessentially early-millennium Warped Tour about this album’s combination of title and a cover throwing back to In Love And Death (even if the fact that The Used already have an album called Artwork seems to have gone unnoticed), and the desire to re-embrace their post-hardcore roots has been made pretty evident off the back of the pre-release tracks and in having John Feldmann return as producer. It’s the sort of exercise in nostalgia-baiting that’s blatant, but ultimately welcome; The Used have some genuinely great material from their earlier years under their belts, and throwing back to that sound with the benefit of a bit more experience comes across as a workable match, at least on paper.
On paper is where that stays though, because Heartwork couldn’t be further from being a throwback. It sets the stage for it with the initial two tracks and high-profile scene collaborations to give the impression of re-fostering the feeling of Warped Tour kinship, but the primary focus is placed much further away. This is a messy album flitting all across the poppier end of the map with no heed of cohesion, something that stings of overcompensation above all else. With The Canyon being as alienating as it was, Heartwork looks to serve as a course correction but ends up going massively overboard in the process. It’s an album that believes it’s doing huge, grand things with its more melodic sounds, when really all it is, is a totally-confused album that doesn’t really know what it wants to achieve at the end of it all. That could certainly be applied to The Used in the past, but not to this extent, and the piecemeal showing that Heartwork consists of really is difficult to look past.
For starters, it goes without saying that this sounds a lot cleaner and more produced; it’s a modern John Feldmann job, and that just goes with the territory at this point. To be fair though, this is far from his worst effort, given that there’s still some space for tracks like Blow Me and The Lottery to rage while still sounding clear and modern (though neither are hindered by respective appearances from Jason Butler and Caleb Shomo), and the channelling of The Taste Of Ink again on Obvious Blasé lands it in familiar, and therefore workable, territory. In the moments where The Used have clearly drawn on their past experiences, there’s a revitalised feeling that’s cool and refreshing, sort of similar to what a band like Silverstein have been doing. They don’t move too far from what they know, but the evidence of natural growth combined with remaining threads to their heyday – in this case, Bert McCracken’s elasticated vocals – keeps it moving along decently.
If all of Heartwork was like that, it’d be a far superior listen to what it is, but The Used also find themselves saddled with the less reputable end of Feldmann’s production, and affixing that to the modern rock mentality of going pop with little clear direction sends this album readying itself for a nosedive on a handful of occasions. And as is always worth reiterating in these situations, making pop isn’t, in itself a bad thing – in the case of Clean Cut Heals, a pop bassline gives Jeph Howard much more to do than a rock one – but The Used’s showcase of it isn’t all that great for the most part. Sure, the propulsive rumble of Cathedral Bell isn’t bad, but trying to replicate its darker atmosphere with the thudding drone of 1984 (Infinite Jest) that thoroughly murders its buildup and prevents that song from really going anywhere. And of course, there’s the customary Imagine Dragons riff on BIG WANNA BE’s clattering lumber into tedium, with another colourless indie-pop attempt on The Lighthouse that’s a bit more energetic but still totally forgettable, even with the Mark Hoppus feature in which he come across as unnecessary at best. It’s that cavalier approach to genre that ensures that it’s rarely built on to a satisfying degree, even if The Used’s confidence that they go into it with is consistently commendable. But overconfidence is still a factor and that’s what Heartwork suffers from the most; in looking to be a glossy, modern album in line with what so much of the scene is doing, The Used haven’t necessarily neglected their strengths but drove a wedge through what they are and aren’t capable of, and that makes the shifts in quality all the more erratic and jarring.
And you can really tell that The Used believe this to assert themselves as a grand, innovative presence, even though what could fittingly fall into that category feels surface level at best. It’s all well and good having literary references for titles on Paradise Lost, a poem by John Milton, 1984 (Infinite Jest) and Gravity’s Rainbow to highlight that self-importance, but there’s not a lot to them to apply to the source material, a disparity made all the wider by how clunky and overwrought the poem of a title track is. For the most part, The Used really are sticking to the basics for their lyrics, the irony of which is made all the funnier by Wow, I Hate This Song being a screed against vapid radio-pop of which BIG WANNA BE’s nebulous desire for power or The Lighthouse’s shrug-worthy love song imagery aren’t that far removed from. The confrontation relayed on Paradise Lost, a poem by John Milton and Blow Me are definitely more compelling, but they’re still in the general catchment of scene-friendly fare that Heartwork is pretty consistently rooted in. It’s not The Used can’t pull this sort of thing off either, especially when some of their biggest hits fall into that definitively 2000s emo mould, but there’s not a lot of standout lines or images in the same way here. It’s serviceable for the most part, but The Used can do a lot better than that.
And to give them a lot of credit among all of that, it’s at least good that Heartwork does attempt to recontextualise that old spark rather than just totally paving over it, as is the easiest route to take nowadays. There’s clearly been effort put into where it would matter most, and the fact it doesn’t come together all that well really is unfortunate, particularly given how that’s been a pretty constant struggle for this band for near enough a decade now. And to extend the slightest bit of hope, Heartwork, if anything, proves that The Used still have the capacity to return to their core sound and succeed at it. That’s within a whole lot of bloat though, the sort of bloat that makes itself known and is almost impossible to just look past, given how the quality on Heartwork seldom has consistency on a level that’s all that appealing. It’s at least interesting, which is more than can be said for a many albums in its field, but this isn’t the best place for The Used to end up in overall, and it’s better that’s established now rather than later.
For fans of: Silverstein, Fall Out Boy, Hawthorne Heights
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Heartwork’ by The Used is released on 24th April on Hassle Records / Big Noise Records.