Review Summary: More like album throwaway
I didn’t hate Vulnerable
– despite its glaring flaws, there were still traces of the fire and energy that made The Used so great in the first place, even if the electronic elements were a bit too much. The same could not be said for last year’s The Ocean of the Sky
, which not only showed weak experimentation (it says something when the EP starts with a furious opener and closes with a twenty-minute ambient soundscape), but also a lackluster recreation of their early work. It became glaringly obviously that The Used would never top the excellence of their self-titled debut, but even when they didn’t, it was still fairly enjoyable at most. Even if the band’s experiments over the last few years showed a recession in quality, none of them have been that cringeworthy enough to earn my ire.
Unfortunately, Imaginary Enemy
manages to buck the trend. Providing the band’s most drastic sound change, The Used’s sixth studio album has Utah’s finest straying far from their roots and into a much poppier sound than anything else they’ve released. A majority of the record’s tracks seem catered to Top 40 airplay, mainly due to its overproduction. Every guitar riff is polished to the maximum, stripping it of any sense of edge or grit. It would be different if the change in sound resulted in at least some memorability, but there’s no catchiness to be found. For the most part, Imaginary Enemy
plays it too safe, especially on songs like the title track and “Evolution” where traces of The Used’s roots are almost nonexistent.
While a poppy sound doesn’t necessarily correlate into low quality, Imaginary Enemy
feels devoid of any energy or passion whatsoever. Bert McCracken’s vocals sound hollow and lifeless, and tracks like mid-paced snoozers “Generation Throwaway” and “Kenna Song” work perfectly as lullabies. His screams are almost all but gone, and the tracks where they remain provide the album’s highlights. On certain songs, his vocals are coated with layers of enhancer that become more prevalent as he tries to hit the high notes (at times he even sounds like Save Rock and Roll
-era Patrick Stump). Bert’s singing ability used to be the highlight of Used albums, and now they’re one of the main causes of their downfall. His sheer lack of emotion greatly contributes to what makes their newfound sound so bland and uninspired.
You wouldn’t know it by Imaginary Enemy
’s first few songs, though – fist-pumping anthem “Revolution” at least opens the album on a strong, rock-driven note; Bert’s cries of “This is the end, calling for revolution” coupled with guitarist Quinn Allman’s aggressive riffs create an expressive aura that is reminiscent of the In Love and Death
era – his screams at the track’s conclusion only further signify this. Lead single “Cry” isn’t too shabby either; it’s anthemic hook and screamed bridge blend the album’s poppier tendencies with the emotion and anger of their early albums. Its lyrics can be a little immature and juvenile at times (“I’m gonna make you beg just for making me cry” seems ripped straight out the stereotypical teenage breakup book), but its blemishes are easy to overcome. The frantic “A Song to Stifle Imperial Progression (A Work in Progress)” may not live up to Bert’s description as ‘the heaviest song we’ve ever written’, but Dan Whitesides’ furious drumming gives it an edgier feel. Even “El-Oh-Vee-Ee” takes the best of the pop sound and runs with it, creating a fairly enjoyable tune.
The Used’s experimentation into a poppier sound is not why Imaginary Enemy
marks the band’s worst release to date. All the energy and emotion that used to define them are gone, and it’s been replaced by uninspired vocals, lazy instrumentation and overproduction. They’ve always been a band driven by passion, and only traces of it are still discernable. While this isn’t entirely to blame on their new sonic direction, one can only ponder if the lack of energy was caused by their desire to explore new sounds. Although McCracken has stated in interviews that he wanted Imaginary Enemy
’s pop sound to lead to more catchier material, it’s done exactly the opposite for him. Aside from the first four tracks, the album lacks a memorable moment - the choruses of "Generation Throwaway" and "Make Believe" are meant to get stuck in your head, but they never accomplish that goal. If this is what The Used have to offer, to me it's only make believe.