Despite playing a genre of music that seemingly died out years ago (as evidence of many of their peers from the early 2000’s emo-pop boom having gone the way of the dodo bird), The Used have found a way to remain relevant within the scene, as they possess some of the most die-hard fans I’ve ever encountered. It probably helps that their first two albums are revered by fans and non-fans, and, despite releasing a pair of duds since then, The Used are still able to stir up a lot of anticipation and debate whenever they’re about to release a new album.
But after releasing the poor Artwork in 2009, the band parted ways with Warner Bros. Vocalist Bert McCracken has gone on to say that Artwork is his least favorite album and directed some of the blame towards the band’s former label for meddling with it. Now three years since, their fifth studio album, Vulnerable, is the result of the band having 100% creative control for the first time in a long time, releasing the album collaboratively between their own label, Anger Music Group, and indie power Hopeless Records. McCracken stated that Vulnerable is a direct response to everything surrounding the band’s last release and is his favorite Used record ever. Those are pretty bold words and while I don’t agree with them (I’ll rep the self-titled release till I die), Vulnerable is definitely the band’s best and most versatile release since 2004’s In Love and Death.
Like their recent releases, Vulnerable contains its share of lemons, but there is a spark, an energy, that hasn’t been heard from McCracken’s voice in a while. Opening track “I Come Alive” is a prime example of what The Used does best – dark atmospherics with an explosive chorus before delving into chaos. McCracken affectionately refers to it as sludge-pop. It’s a formula that works for this band and a formula to go to often throughout Vulnerable. “Hands and Faces” follow in the footsteps of the opener with some more electronic flares mixed into the bass and drum tango between bassist Jeph Howard and drummer Dan Whitesides.
There are a plethora of potential singles on Vulnerable, as the quartet has perfected their brand of pop-rock. Despite its lackluster lyrics, “Shine” has the most radio-ready chorus on the album, as it’ll be stuck in your head whether you invited it in or not. They pack in anthems such “Moving On” and “Hurt No One” between boring ballads like “Together Burning Bright” and “Getting Over You” (nothing here recaptures that magic of “Blue and Yellow”). The lack of flow on Vulnerable hurts the overall identity of the album, as the band bounces around from one experimentation to the next.
Notwithstanding the ballad missteps and the formulaic power-pop numbers, The Used still manages to fit in some aggressive tracks that will please older fans. The infectious “Put Me Out” could be seen as a direct shot at the band’s former label, while the furious “Now That You’re Dead” welcomes the hatred in McCracken’s yells, as guitarist Quinn Allman unleashes a punk urgency in his playing. These tracks, along with the raucous “Kiss It Goodbye,” play to The Used’s strengths – instilling a catchy hook within the intensity that emerges from their instruments.
No one doubts that The Used can write killer hooks. They’ve certainly made a career out of it, but as evident with their past releases, they became too reliant on the pop side of things, forsaking the ferocity that made them a hit with fans in the first place. Their deteriorating relationship with Warner Bros might have been a factor, as Vulnerablefeatures a band that sounds reinvigorated. The energy and aggression displayed on key tracks overcome the album’s lyrical shortcomings and repetitive compositions. So while they’ll never be that band from 2002 again, but The Used have clawed their way back from the disastrous Artwork to release their best album in 8 years.