ALBUM REVIEW: The Used – ‘Toxic Positivity’

Artwork for The Used’s ‘Toxic Positivity’ - a skeleton biting a bunch of pink roses

With every new move they make, it feels as though The Used are adamant to distance themselves from The Canyon as much as possible. And the thing is, no one would really blame them. Back in 2017 when it came out, it might’ve been as big and bold a creative swerve as possible from them, but in the six years since, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who really looks upon it all that fondly. The prog angle isn’t really what The Used are about; they’re the perpetual soundtrack to the early-2000s, and arguably the definitive face of post-hardcore from that time. And so, with getting back to where they were and reconvening with John Feldmann on production for 2020’s Heartwork…

…it still didn’t amount to much. Look, for as good as The Used’s hits were two decades ago, they’ve really struggled to replicate that as of late. In context especially, Heartwork could be seen as nothing but that, an album whose entire existence hinged on snapping things back into place and continuing on a more reliable, poppy tack, to the point where the machinations to make it happen were more apparent than the results. And that just highlights the big question with The Used today—their legacy deserves to be pedestalled, but among the swarms of similar-vintage bands sounding remarkably stagnant and out of their depth in their modern output, is there really much difference?

Well, yes and no. It’s true that The Used aren’t exactly in a prime state right now, they’re still not in as heavy a slump as some of their peers. They’ve still got a good-enough sense of how to do this sort of thing, which might as well be the strapline of Toxic Positivity and the mild boost it provides. That mightn’t sound like much, but you do notice the difference compared to those whose last two decades have comprised nothing but wheel-spinning. It’s definitely a sharper, more catchy version of recalibration than its predecessor, trying to leverage something more modern and poppy to nip and tuck the natural sag of a sound that’d otherwise show its age pretty readily. And while that comes with its own set of issues, it’s worth giving The Used the benefit of the doubt and saying that they’re trending closer to what worked best in the first place.

Of course, said issues can’t simply be ignored, not when they’re made up of ubiquitous Feldmann-isms that aren’t nearly as elevating as anyone involved might think. The production remains far too clean and the pop impulses are more intrusive than augmentative. The squelchy bass-beat of I Hate Everybody and the cloying, saccharine drizzle all over Cherry and House Of Sand don’t feel like auspicious directions for this band, not when Bert McCracken’s voice can already be fairly tart. Rarely is it outright derailing, but there’s a gated-in feeling that can come from this, where the band are deigned only certain moments to cut loose before the tether gets too taut. And while that’s become something of a calling card for Feldmann—particularly in the last decade—affixing it to a band with the capacity for more like The Used can make it more noticeable.

At the same time though, elements of Toxic Positivity do fall into place more cleanly, likely as a result of Feldmann working with The Used since the beginning and knowing what brings out good work from them, even at their poppiest. At its most extreme, the plucks and twinkles across Dopamine feel like an attempt to recreate The Bird And The Worm again, a bit less successfully but still with admirable effort. Elsewhere, The Worst (Worst I’ve Ever Been) is a real barnstormer of an opener with by far the albums most grabbing hook, while Pinky Swear steams forward on some good pop-punk energy, and the curdled, minor feel of Dancing With A Brick Wall paired with its dance-rock percussion feels like one of the cleanest pop nexuses here. Even when the muscle could afford to be dialled up a wee bit—which is probably Toxic Positivity’s most persistent issue, to be frank—The Used embracing their punch and straightforwardness is a handy consolation.

In a sense, it matches a back-to-basics feel that permeates across the whole album. Especially compared to the two that came before it, Toxic Positivity is an especially streamlined listen. Few wild deviations or swings into unexplored territory are made; it really does feel like The Used trying to capture to essence of their seminal works, and place it in a contemporary context. And while that can easily send some alarm bells ringing, even more so upon the revelation that its anchored in the emo subject matter that can be a far harder sell for an older band, they handle it with a lot more grace. Okay, maybe ‘grace’ is the wrong word. There’s still a brashness to how its executed, but it’s also more than just dredging up the same lyrical ideas and frames and trying to paste them down again. On the simplest possible level, word choice does do a lot (The Worst (Worst I’ve Ever Been) might be one of the only songs to use the word “copium”, pleasingly), and McCracken’s ever-expressive energy is a great thing to have behind it. And even if the closer Giving Up feels like a notably jerked-in pivot into hope and positivity after a whole album of angst, it’s still good to have as a brighter, more buoyant finale.

On the whole, there is more good here than bad, and The Used have become remarkably proficient at drawing out all the potential they possibly can from that. They’re still a way away from matching their peak, sure, but after a fair few years of scrambling to branch out and then regain stability, Toxic Positivity is a pleasantly consistent way to get there. It’s just a bit of a fresher outing from The Used than lately, and with a handful of big songs and energy that fits cleanly with their best-loved work, that can sometimes be enough. With bands of this stripe—hell, with The Used themselves—low expectations at new music down the same track are a given, and while Toxic Positivity isn’t smashing them, it’s testing their resilience in a way that shouldn’t go unnoticed.

For fans of: Silverstein, Hawthorne Heights, Story Of The Year

‘Toxic Positivity’ by The Used is out now on Hassle Records / Big Noise.

Words by Luke Nuttall

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