The Used – ‘Toxic Positivity’

By Katherine Allvey

According to the WHO (The World Health Organisation, not the band), the global prevalence of depression and anxiety rose by 25% in the first year of the pandemic. Amongst those affected was Bert McCracken, vocalist and songwriter for The Used. In 2022, the band cancelled their Slam Dunk appearances after McCracken, quite reasonably, prioritised his mental health and treatment plan, and previously in interviews he revealed that he was suicidal before Chester Bennington reached out to intervene. In light of his openness, it’d be easy, and slightly reductive, to see ‘Toxic Positivity’ as a concept album, a hike through the singer’s very publicly bared mental landscape, but McCracken prefers that we see it as a ‘day-in-the-life journey of a depressed, anxiety-ridden person’. Either way, it’s an unflinching record that stares right into the headlights of introspection and self analysis. Bravery alone doesn’t make a brilliant record though, so thankfully this is an album which has all the hallmarks of The Used at their very best; searchlight choruses, brutalist guitar and a youthful emo fire barely tempered by the passage of time. 

“Waking up in a dark place has been such a huge part of my life in the past couple of years,” revealed McCracken, so opening a track called ‘The Worst (Worst I’ve Ever Been)’ with a full-throated crashing metal roar seems a very apt metaphor. ‘Don’t ask me for a fucking favour / I’m not anybody’s goddamn saviour…’ wails McCracken over rock solid bass and guitar chords, rising like volcanoes from the ocean, channelling his frustration over the state of the inside of his brain and how it’s seen from the outside. The fingerprints of John Feldmann, longtime collaborator and producer, are all over this album and if you like the indescribable Feldy touch then you’ll relish what he’s done with The Used’s vision for their post-pandemic record. ‘Numb’, no relation to the Linkin Park anthem, is the quintessential example of this vision; all echoes and layers of electronic desolation with quiet piano interludes to process McCracken’s rhetorical anguish: ‘Does anybody else feel numb?’

In the midst of the unquiet consciousness of this record are moments of hope, and this by no means is a misery album. The open landscape of the pleas on the chorus in ‘Pinky Swear’ are like the patch of blue sky when the clouds part, but it’s ‘Headspace’ that’s destined to be the big ticket track from ‘Toxic Positivity’. With power chords and muscles tensed before the joyful sprint of the chorus, this is a song that trips and stumbles from greatness to greatness. Ironically, it will be a pure dopamine hit for the stadium crowds between the military tapping drums and galactic pauses to send the band’s message of hope into the stratosphere. 

The last thing you’d expect to finish an album which begins with the line “I’m the worst I’ve ever been” is the candy floss tenderness of ‘House Of Sand’. There’s an acceptance of the losses which the band have endured, as we all have over the pandemic, but rather than being bittersweet, there’s this tone of floating above the strife of a riotous life. The swan song, ‘Giving Up’ is a deceptive song that finishes by summarising the whole project; beginning with “Yesterday I woke up wanting to die” progresses to “I’m done with the misery” to “I’m not giving up on me”. We have to remember that this clattering, heartbeat pop punk comes after the most brutal part of McCracken’s mental health struggles and its angelic electronic organ over unrelenting guitar is the sound of his reflection rather than his crisis. 

This is a very courageous record to make. Many songwriters have channelled their depression into music through linguistic tricks and minor chords, but The Used have approached it head on like a matador and wrestled that bull into punk submission. Yes, the only theme explored is mental health, but its an album which they needed to make to exorcise the last few years and exercise their musical muscles, which have not atrophied in the slightest. If you want reflective, strong pop punk with a side of hooks that’ll make you think while you’re slamming, then you’ve come to the right place. 

KATE ALLVEY

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