Review Summary: They puked their day away, and they’ll be just fine.
2018 Reading and Leeds Performers Series: Episode III
Before I begin this review, here’s a true story about The Canyon
I would like to share to all of you, just in case you might not know about it: During The Used
’s 15th Anniversary Tour in 2016, Tregen Lewis, who is a very close childhood friend of the band’s frontman Robert McCracken*, cut off his anti-depressants and drove to Provo Canyon, and tragically shot himself in the head. Devastated by such heartbreaking news, McCracken decided to use such pain of loss as the central theme of his band’s seventh studio album that is The Canyon
. As a result, he and company created this 79-minutes-long double album (!), a more rock-oriented, atmospheric and experimental affair than previous The Used album. This ambitious effort may sound difficult to listen, let alone explore deeply, since it’s their artiest and longest record to date, but what makes it brilliant is the daredevil experimentations in the album and the mature growth of the band.
What makes this album shine is that it contains some of the most personal lyrics McCracken had delivered in the band’s career. Whether was it giving a haunting eulogy for Lewis (“For You” and “Upper Falls”), or having the same nightmares repeatedly in daily basis (“Rise Up Lights”), or even imagine the last hours of Lewis himself (“The Mouth of The Canyon”), the words are at the McCracken’s most surrealistic since In Love and Death
, as if the frontman himself took these words from his own diary and arrange it here poetically. For instance, in the spine-chilling word “Just what did it takes to trigger the end？” from the absolute highlight “Upper Falls”, it seems that McCracken was confronting to Lewis’ ghost about the reason of his suicide, all the while showcasing The Used have refreshed their signature formula of melodrama, vulnerability and ferocity that attracts audience to them in the first place. Not only that, this feature also exhibited the band have graced to maturity successfully like contemporaries such as Brand New
did in Science Fiction
and After Laughter
respectively, with the lyrics are very relatable for many adult listeners, as the themes of loss and ageing is one that many can relate to. But unlike the other two, with the both of which only lament about how the dark reality and ageing caught up with them, The Used seems to stand up and reflects about them in this album, further illuminating themselves as a not-your-typical post-hardcore band.
Speaking of In Love and Death
, the moments of the sophomore album also recurred in this effort, too. Specifically, the death of McCracken’s ex-girlfriend Kate, who was pregnant with his unborn child and thus inspired In Love and Death
. Such events surfaced in the catchy highlight “Broken Windows”, with the line “You gave me the drugs that killed her” referencing Lewis himself gave too much methadone to Kate which resulted in her deadly overdose, while documents the singer himself burnt all Kate’s letters to him and delete all her voicemails prior to her death(“You wrote me a letter, got laid in the fire /Deleted the moment, of course I’ll regret it”). But he didn’t just document these events, he also reflected that the situation will get worse anyway after her death, referencing the Broken Window Theory by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, which resulted the title(“Slipped right through my hands, but it caught me /Broken windows, are all that you left me”). That’s not the only song that referenced such past memories: “About You(No Songs Left To Sing)” also has a brief scratch of a moment where the two friends had an ‘intimate moment’ while Kate was drunk and asleep(“She laid asleep there the whole time and it wears under my skin”), all the while mourning both of their death (“Now I’ve lost you both, please save your prayers”). If McCracken is not careful enough, he might end up making In Love and Death II
by having such dark event overshadow the album. Yet he prevents such mistake, and instead used these moments as puzzle pieces of the album’s grief on Lewis’ death, further expanding the scope of the album.
Another reason than makes the album brilliant is that it captures their most universally empowering moments in their career, while remained the newfound maturity in the album. Forget the Michael Jackson references and that of Nirvana, the knockout lead track “Over and Over Again” is one of their best song in their career, as it reflects about staying true to yourself, with McCracken howls, “Like you could never, ever tell me now that this is not who I am” and in the chorus, he stated that he is not going to be allured by the carrot on the string like a donkey. If they released such song in their early career, it might end up as a tasteless inspiring anthem. However, given to the fact that they release such song 16 years after their formation, as it seems they used the song as a proud statement of how they managed to stay true to themselves in their long career. Furthermore, McCracken delivers his most empowering lyrics since “The Taste of Ink” in the appropriately titled triumphant rebel anthem “The Nexus”, as he describes himself being treated like a slave(“I could’ve been bold, I could’ve been anything”, “Could you pardon me, princes, may I just read my book？”). Finally, he had enough of such atrocity and confront the powerful people (“Nexus of the pain, invites me on my feet again”), while chanting “I know we’re the used, but we’re not defeated”, as it seems that he was calling for arms to fight such power. These aren’t just the profound moments in this record, as McCracken also shows his head-turning sociopolitical statements, such as fears of the consumerism society (“Cold War Telescreen”), observations on the Syria’s civil war in the eye of George Orwell (“Selfies In Aleppo”) and disgusts about the capitalist society (“The Quiet War”). All of such universal moments not only proved that The Used have made major improvement in terms of their view, but also further enhance their fierce post-hardcore sound, solidifying the album as their most muscular and universally earnest effort in their catalog.
But the lyrics aren’t the only factors that gives the album a visceral edge, however, it was the band’s new sound that consists of hard rock fury, hardcore punk intensity and prog-rock dynamics that breaths in life for the album, all the while remained their pop sensibility and post-hardcore base that attracts fans at the first place. Compare to the series of lacklustre releases prior (Vulnerable
and Imaginary Enemy
, anyone？), this album sounds the band at their most rejuvenated since the flawed yet excellent In Love and Death
. Perhaps it is noticeable that the fact that they have a new guitarist, Justin Shekoski, previously from Saosin, and a new producer, Ross Robinson, who previously produced for acts like Slipknot, Korn and The Cure, in the recording, The Used sounded more like a straight-up post-hardcore act with alternative rock and hard rock tendencies than a dark scream-laden punk-pop band which they were in previous recordings, giving the songs a new kind of energy that previous albums never had. From high-octane hard rockers(the furious “Moving The Mountain”, the adrenaline-pumping “Rise Up Lights” and the chaotic “Selfies In Aleppo”), dynamic-heavy alt-rock (the dramatic finale “The Mouth of the Canyon” and the faux-pop-rock perfection “Over and Over Again”), atmospheric stadium rock (the echoing “Broken Windows” and the rhythmic “The Divine Absence (This Is Water)”), to prog-rock delights (the grunge-tinged “About You” and the charging “The Quiet War”), The Used just performed a plenty amount of genre-bending exercises which I find them pleasant. What’s more, is that they actually included more surprising detours, from having an acoustic track(“For You”) and a lush string-laden ballad (“Moon-Dream”), to having bizarre moments like a banjo break (“Over and Over Again”), a half-rap session (“The Quiet War”) and even falsettos experiments (“Vertigo Cave”), cementing themselves as an audacious band at their own right, as well as the album itself as the period which the band fully realise their ambition.
Unfortunately, the album suffered some rather significant failures as well. For starters, the lyrics in softer songs such as “For You” and “Moon-Dream” are quite cheesy to say the least. Despite the two excellently juxtaposed the generally adrenaline-driving dynamics of the album, it doesn’t escape the fact that the two contain the most cringe-worthy lyrics in the album, such as “Every song I ever sing is for you” (from “For You”) and “Read a part but I skipped right to the end to make you feel better”(from “Moon-Dream”), which might makes you rewind and make sure whether they are real or not. Furthermore, we have the much-talked about mixing issues here. Perhaps the fact that the whole album is recorded entirely on analog tape recording machines, there are certain limitations when it comes to the recording and mixing process, as engineers could not correct any errors occurred in the recordings with modern technologies, and mixers might have difficulty to balance the sound without overloading the tape. For instance, in songs such as “Cold War Telescreen”, “Pretty Pictures” and “Rise Up Lights”, the vocals are almost drowned by the guitars, while the mixing balance between the lead vocals and backing vocals are executed not very well. Moreover, the drums were messily mixed in “Over and Over Again” and “Broken Windows”, as it sounds quite unsettling and inconsistent in the record. What’s more, these problems are just some of such mixing and production issues in the album. However, such inconsistency in the mixing sounds like it was intended to be such conditions (I guess it was intended to have the word “razorblades” to sound like the title in “Rise Up Lights”), which flourish the chaotic and distraught moods in this death-loomed album, as it seems like McCracken howled the lyrics in his grief-mired minds, further enhancing the defective beauty in this epic.
In short, the album may suffer from rather messy mixing and some rather questionable tracks, not to mention that it’s too long for some casual listeners, but overall, the ambitious effort that is The Canyon
nevertheless showcased The Used at their most compelling in years, as well as their most mature and thought-provoking in their career, creating an album that is not for listeners to just pop into directly, but a sonic meditation that requires open ears and patience to understand and enjoy. It is no doubt that the double-album is their most divisive release in their discography, since it garnered the band’s strongest critical acclaim in years, earned wild praise by many fans and attracted some more serious listeners to their fanbase, as well as being derided by some fans and critics for disposing their dark punk energy in favour of more pop-oriented direction, as well as the production issues in this album and, most of all, being pretentious.(A fan even wrote on the band’s Facebook page that this album is their rock bottom, while another one actually called them a sell-out) Whether you love it or hate it, however, it is quite undeniable that Robert McCracken* and co. are capable of turning such pain of loss into something beautifully visceral in this album that harks back to In Love and Death
, all the while showcasing their growth as musicians simultaneously, which cements The Canyon
as not only their remarkable career turning point, but an exciting high water-mark in their career since their unimpeachably stellar self-titled debut, and also one of 2017’s most noteworthy album.
The Divine Absence (This Is Water)
Moving The Mountain (Odysseus Surrenders)
Over and Over Again
About You (No Songs Left To Sing)
The Mouth of The Canyon
*Since many fans and even journalists still call him with his previous nickname Bert, yet the liner note in this album noted him as Rob, so I decided to use his actual name, Robert, in this article instead, in order to prevent any confusion.