Review Summary: An overproduced, inconsistent mess of an album that runs on for way too long.
The last few years have not been harmonious for Utah post-hardcore veterans The Used. After parting ways with their founding guitarist Quinn Allman, they recruited ex-Saosin guitarist Justin Shekoski, although Justin would also part ways with the band shortly after. Both of these departures have not been pleasant or amicable ones, with Quinn threatening to sue the band and Justin having a particularly emotional response to his departure after he was removed from the band’s promotional photos. However, amidst this drama the band released The Canyon which, for better or worse, was one of the best albums of their career. Despite a very long runtime and sub-par production, it was a very creative and engaging album, and most fans held it in high regard alongside the band’s 2002 self-titled record and Artwork, perhaps The Used’s most underrated album.
On their eighth record Heartwork, The Used have yet again got a new guitarist, so there is once again the question of what musical direction the band will take with a new member on board. The album certainly starts off promising; the opening track 'Paradise Lost', a poem by John Milton, is a fairly mid-tier rocker, and following song 'Blow Me' is one of the heaviest songs The Used has put out in a long time, with guest vocalist Jason Aalon Butler providing some nice screams that are a welcome addition for any long-time fan of The Used. The guitar work here is also worthy of praise, with the riff work on 'Blow Me' being on par with some of the band’s strongest works.
Following song 'Big Wanna Be' is a fairly steady song, and not as chaotic as the first two songs, however it highlights perhaps the most glaring problem with Heartwork. The production on here is handled by John Feldman, who has worked with The Used on all of their albums except for Artwork and The Canyon, and whilst the album itself is produced fairly well, the vocals here are so overproduced it’s almost sickly-sweet. Frontman Bert McCracken is a very capable singer who, despite having suffered with vocal nodules in the past, can still put in a very good vocal performance, but on Heartwork his vocals are far too overproduced and this becomes particularly apparent on the softer, more steady songs on this album. Thankfully the album picks up again on following tracks 'Bloody Nose' and 'Wow, I Hate This Song', even if the latter has a ridiculous title and lyrics that can generously be called questionable, even by this band’s standards.
The middle section of the album is, unfortunately, an enormous let-down. 'My Cocoon' is only a minute long, but it’s completely unnecessary filler that is almost immediately forgettable, and 'Cathedral Bell' sounds more like a Bert McCracken solo song, with more overproduced vocals. Thankfully the rest of the band comes back on '1984 (Infinite Jest)' and 'Gravity’s Rainbow', but the former song is still fairly boring instrumentally, with more questionable lyrics harkening back to the politically motivated 'Imaginary Enemy'; Whilst the sentiment on this song is good, the delivery leaves a lot to be desired. Thankfully, 'Gravity’s Rainbow' is a huge improvement, with huge chords, a bit of a symphonic rock edge and plenty of sing-along moments, as well as perhaps the most emotive vocal performance on the whole album. Where the middle section of the record is at its absolute worst is unfortunately right after this, with the next three songs once again sounding more like Bert McCracken solo songs at best and throwaway filler at worst. 'Clean Cut Heals' is an absolutely gross fusion of funk, pop and trap which sounds hideous combined with Bert’s whiny vocal performance, and this is unfortunately not much different on 'The Lighthouse'. The lyrics on these songs are once again not good at all; The Used have always been known for fairly immature lyrics, but even they can do much better than this.
The good news is that for the final four tracks, the whole band plays on every song, although unfortunately these songs are, for the most part, fairly average to decent. The one exception to this rule is 'The Lottery' featuring Caleb Shomo. Like 'Blow Me', this is a very heavy track with ferocious screams courtesy of the feature singer, and an absolutely punishing breakdown which will certainly get pits moving. It’s a relief that the latter portion of the album redeems itself a bit after the largely disappointing middle section, but given the fact that Heartwork is 16 tracks long, it’s hard not to think that it could have been made a bit shorter.
After such a creative high with The Canyon, it’s a shame to see The Used return with an album such as this. Whilst Heartwork has some promising moments, as well as some of the heaviest songs they have ever released, the record is way too overproduced and most of the material is either forgettable or offensively bad. There are about 5 or 6 songs here that could have either been saved for a McCracken solo album or just left out entirely and leaving these out would make Heartwork a more consistent and enjoyable listen, and unfortunately the inclusion of this material and the subsequent inconsistency in the quality on this album stops it from being even a passable effort in The Used discography.