Mortality And Memories: Inside The Used’s New Album, Heartwork
Bert McCracken is never happier than when he’s discussing his own mortality. “We’re all just humans. We’re all born, we’re all gonna die,” he says, leaning back in a chair sat on the back deck of his home in Sydney, Australia. The joyful shouts of his two daughters float in from the yard; at one point Bert pauses to say hello to a curious bird who has landed on the railing.
Beyond the visual signifiers of a neck tattoo and cut-off tee, you might never guess that the man bathed in mid-morning sunshine is also the frontman of The Used, 21st-century punk-rock’s antiheroes who made emo music what it is today. This week, the band – today completed by bassist Jeph Howard, guitarist Joey Bradford and drummer Dan Whitesides – release their most dichotic album yet, Heartwork, and, according to Bert, their eighth full-length might just be their “biggest risk that never felt like a risk.”
It doesn’t seem to make sense that this lighthearted musician talking blithely about worldly demise would have gone through quite so much to get here. Bert and The Used got their start nearly 20 years ago in Orem, Utah, a city of less than 100,000 people laid smack in the middle of the minimalist desert and reverent Mormon faith influence. Bert has raged against the status quo from the start, burying his youthful head in stacks of Converge records rather than succumb to the idea of what people expected from him in small-town America. As The Used traveled the globe and brought screamo music into the forefront of alternative culture, catapulted into the spotlight by 2002 breakout monster The Taste Of Ink, Bert fought his own demons. Having struggled with substance abuse since he was a teenager, he’s now been sober almost a decade. The band itself has often proven a rock for Bert, but after a few lineup shuffles – most notoriously, guitarist Justin Shekoski’s very public departure in 2018 – the band are now intensely aware of how much they’ve bled to get to this point. “We feel really fortunate to still be able to do this,” says Bert. “In music, especially with rock music, it pays to have the right amount of healthy pride and ego.”
Such gratitude doesn’t mean The Used have settled for shying comfortably away from difficult issues. Bert will describe Heartwork as “the lightest and the darkest record we’ve ever made”, comprising The Used’s polar opposite parts of pop and hardcore, the best memories they’ve had – and the worst. If anything, Heartwork is the band’s harshest examination of their past yet. “We’re just trying to live in the mantra of those first two records,” says Bert, referencing 2002’s self-titled debut and 2004’s In Love And Death. “They feel like this unbridled honesty. The competition of art is with yourself. Sometimes the innocent approach that you took when you were younger can’t be outdone.”
To (re-)capture this, the band turned to John Feldmann, today one of the scene’s most sought-after producers, and back then one of The Used’s earliest champions. John has been involved with nearly every album The Used have created since, with the exception of Artwork (2009) and The Canyon (2017). “John is the hardest working – not only producer – but maybe human on the planet,” says Bert. “He’ll never quit. It’s an inspiration to be around.” The frontman remembers calm, reflective mornings spent in the studio, chatting through different songs or concepts before putting them to tape. The producer also connected them with some star-studded features for the album, including Mark Hoppus and Travis Barker (blink-182), Caleb Shomo (Beartooth) and Jason Aalon Butler (FEVER 333, letlive.). All of them stuck around for a few days to write alongside the band, as well as contribute their vocals (or, in Travis’ case, drum skills).
While Bert would ruminate on the deep lyrical connections to literature or art, John was able to corral the thoughts into usable verses. “He’s the perfect pop filter,” says Bert. “He’s the one to say, ‘You can’t have ‘oubliette’ be one of the main words in the chorus.’” He lets out a laugh. “People love to be challenged, but if I had it my way, the record would be an incomprehensible mess. Feldmann is a great connection to what’s a little more sensible.”
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Being sensible hasn’t always been a cornerstone of The Used. But after almost 20 years as a band, they were learning how to balance their latest creative vision with what has made them who they are: vicious, unblinking honesty. Such aggression led Bert to envision the very piece of work as The Used personified. He pictured The Used as a teenage boy, struggling with many of the same afflictions that Bert has spent a lifetime overcoming. While he later says that this concept was dropped, certain elements remain. “I think we all hope to find ourselves in a story,” he says. “That’s the powerful part of the connection to art. We listen to hear ourselves in whatever it is.”
“Let’s just talk about books, forever,” Bert sighs with relief. He’s been patiently waiting for this point in the conversation, and shakes his shoulders out in anticipation. He has loved literature for his entire life; references to poetry and novels can be found on every Used record. Heartwork is no different: track titles jump from John Milton (Paradise Lost) to the works of David Foster Wallace and George Orwell (1984 (infinite jest)). Of the latter, it’s surprising that Bert can tie together two fairly disparate works: Orwell’s dystopia written in 1949 and Wallace’s satirical postmodern tome written almost 50 years later. Bert is circumspect about the connection. “Maybe social media linked the two,” he says. He compares the telescreen in 1984 to the modern-day mobile, and discusses the novel’s deep connection to propaganda and power. “Whether we’re trapped by the overbearing presence of authority, or a trap we were born into with serious clinical depression and drug addiction… Those two worlds go hand in hand right now,” he says. “Not only are people trapped by the telescreen handcuffed to their wrist, but we’re in the worst place we’ve ever been with chemical dependency and clinical depression.”
Elsewhere, the other references vary: The Lottery gets its name from the Shirley Jackson short story of a fictional small town with the yearly tradition selecting one resident at random to be stoned to death. Gravity’s Rainbow is the title for Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 epic. At times, it feels like Bert’s only taste in books is “dense”. But for him, the deep integration of literature with his band’s oeuvre isn’t about intimidation or highbrow leanings. Though it may take him months to work through his latest literature obsession, he strives to understand the work at its root – or, even, the author.
“Art has always been about the artist trapped within the metaphor,” he says. “That’s the most fulfilling kind of art.” He pauses, considering the great open sky above him. “You wonder how much of [Spanish literary great, Miguel de] Cervantes is in each character, and how much is in relation to his life. Because it has to be related. Even if an artist is trying to avoid a connection to the art, it’s impossible.”
Bert’s intrinsic connection to his own art is undeniable, even if he isn’t wandering through the seedy underbelly of his own psyche quite as intensely as he once did. “What I’ve found with being able to write about the dark times is that if I’m writing about them in that moment…” He trails off for a moment. “It sounds a bit obvious now,” he continues, “but it’s painted in different colours when you’re in a good place.” Indeed, it’s been a long time since The Used could feel so secure in their positivity. Bert eagerly speaks of the band being “the best place they’ve ever been,” which only means they needed to examine every past freckle of doubt or shame in their lives, in hopes of making their most confessional work yet.
“My favourite thing about music has always been not only the escape, but the crutch and everything in between,” says Bert. “Music has always been my church, my religion. When I was in a desperate or really awful place, music was there not only for me to lean on, but also carry me through those moments.” He pauses, allowing enough time to pass that each of those “really awful” moments can seep in. “I think I’m naturally trying to recreate that for myself. There’s always some darkness to get lost in, but when you’re really taking care of yourself, you have the ability to explore those places more freely.” That way, he explains, every step further into your darkest mental safe doesn’t mean a tailspin into old ways of thinking.
And here is where we get to mortality. According to Bert, it’s not only normal, but encouraged to remind yourself of life’s inevitability. “You have a 20-minute break in the casual life of, ‘Oh right, I die. This whole end of the story is my death,’” he says. “And that’s it! Then I’m moving on. I’m still going to the gym tonight.”
Given that Heartwork has so many ties back to The Used’s earlier work, it begs one final question: When was the last time Bert McCracken listened to their self-titled album? When presented with the question, he laughs. “I never need to re-listen.” He pauses. “I’m always listening.”
While most lead singers would deign to compare their new album to their band’s first record, Bert is more than happy. For him, the record has taken on new meaning as he’s traveled through life. “Listening to The Taste Of Ink while I’m sitting in my backyard in Sydney, is… I can’t even hear the song that we made in 2001. It’s just a totally different thing. Music has an incredible way to transport you through time.
“Memories are strange,” he concedes. “You wonder how many of them have been put there by you.”
At this point in his career, the wide expanse of The Used seems laid out in front of him. And despite the ever-changing world, Bert McCracken seems to stand above it all. Whether it’s releasing his band’s eighth album or staring death in the face, nothing else seems to faze him. “What do we actually remember about our lives?” he asks, and his entire history with the bleak and the broken seems to rush in his ears. He leans back in his chair, and smiles again. “I guess what we choose to.”
An intense, brutally honest conversation with The Used frontman Bert McCracken
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