The Used: “I needed a little hope and a little inspiration”

THE USED are embracing the darkness on their new album ‘Toxic Positivity’.

In the cold light of day, post the release of 2020’s ‘Heartwork’, The Used found the positivity they’d funnelled throughout its framework had vanished. Released in the early days of the pandemic, although written before the world shut down, its journey into fruition became fraught by the outbreak and played into the creation of its follow-up. 

“There was an amazingly positive vibe during ‘Heartwork’ that just simply couldn’t exist while making ‘Toxic Positivity’,” vocalist Bert McCracken starts. “I think that we were all in the best place we’d ever been in. We’d just come off an amazing tour; everybody was in the best shape of their lives and never tighter as a band, and then, boom! February 2020.”

‘Toxic Positivity’ is The Used once again back to their most vulnerable and scathing. And in case there were any doubts, the two standalone singles they issued both come, erm, spikily named: ‘Fuck You’ and ‘People Are Vomit’. It would seem The Used have had enough. Coming first, the record’s title – a play on toxic masculinity as well as a spear aimed at the world at large – is a succinct thesis for The Used’s return: “We knew where we’re at, and we knew what kind of music might come of it.”

Recorded in two separate sessions, Bert mentions, “This record feels like a progression through the pandemic and coming out the other side. I’m very open about my depression and anxiety, and I think that a lot of people were struggling with the same thing during the pandemic. And coming out of the pandemic, we were thinking that we were going to feel a lot different than we did, and maybe being a little bit disappointed by how it went down.”

A caustic reaction, ‘Toxic Positivity’ is an unrelenting tour de force through Bert’s struggles. Noting it was “100% a reaction to where we were”, the process of getting a Used record together has always been “about capturing that moment where you’re at in your life.” And if this particular scene feels a bit harsh, then that’s because it was a particularly brutal time that, even in isolated, positive pockets, was beyond abnormal. 

“I had nothing inside to give hope to the record. It was very dark, very brutal,” Bert admits. “Coming off of all sorts of drugs, going on all sorts of drugs, just a complete rearrangement of my life, something I’ve always dealt with is anxiety and depression, but never to a debilitating extent.”

Though, much like the eventual loosening of preventative measures, the back half of ‘Toxic Positivity’ does eventually relent, sunlight peaking through its threatening clouds. “The record is so void of positive feelings and emotions that it seemed very appropriate,” mentions Bert. “[But] I think that towards the end of the record, you kind of get this feeling of coming out alive and that there is hope.”

Not initially by design, this glimpse into the figurative other side was “not an intentional move to try to make some positive songs. But after two sessions and 20-something songs written, I was sick and tired of writing negative songs. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I needed a little hope and a little inspiration.”

“I have no regrets about getting to the deeper, darker parts of my inner being”

Bert McCracken

It’s been two decades since The Used first came into the alt world. In that time, they’ve been consistent miners of Bert’s deepest and darkest thoughts, a move that has seen them garner diehard fans the globe over. Sure, emo may have once been seen as a phase, but these feelings are timeless. “We’ve always been a band able to capture the moment seems very dramatic of The Used and what makes us probably emo,” reckons Bert. “But at the same time, we grow, and we learn so much, especially after twenty-plus years of being in this band and performing, and knowing that that connection with the crowd is so much more intense and special than could be put into words.”

They’ve been around long enough now for their original fans to be bringing their children to shows. This fact exists not just as proof of The Used’s draw, but the deeply personal meaning they offer to those who found them. “It’s pretty incredible to see people we’ve seen for 20 years, and they’re bringing their kids out to shows now,” he smiles. “Seeing this full, generational enjoyment of music from the heart feels good.”

Having been doing it for so long now, rooting around in his honesty, into all the crowded shelves of pain and reckoning is second nature. Though as for if this makes him any wiser, he’s not sure. “I wouldn’t say wiser, I would say just more in tune with the way to open myself up for a record.” There’s certainly a case for Bert having the courage to face up to these inner workings and to present them in such a spicy way, particularly since he’s the first to admit there’s never really been any form of restriction. “It’s always been as deep as we want to take it. There’s never really been any limitations to the emotional side of the music.”

Toting the same ideology for twenty years is impressive, particularly when it’s rooted in sincerity. “It feels nice to be able to say that I’ve been honest throughout my entire musical career,” Bert says. “Some of my favourite poets, and some of my favourite writers, seem like they’re writing in the moment for them, and they can only be true to where they’re at in that moment. I have no regrets about getting to the deeper, darker parts of my inner being. I think it’s what makes The Used very special.”

The whole process comes naturally. When The Used enter a studio, they know they’re there to embrace the vicious and the vitriol and tune it into something that might just make a difference. “We have a rhythm now; we know what it takes to make a song, and we can usually do it in a day.” They trust their instincts; after all, this is a band with enough albums under their belt to prove so. “We don’t have to sit back and reflect so much about what needs to be changed or what can be fixed. It all spills out of us. So yeah, in a way, it’s a totally different experience than it was in the beginning. I think that we’re better songwriters now.”

Their method of operating was born from the simple idea of “[learning] from our mistakes and knowing that a crash and burn is an opportunity to learn.” While for most this can be a challenge, it’s here Bert knows his job is to not only provide that understanding but to use his outlet to inform others on how he reached that point, which is the crux of ‘Toxic Positivity”s core. “It’s very tricky to face a fear. But I think that once you do get a different perspective.” He likens it to embracing another fear of his. “But when I have big spiders crawling on me, I’ll feel a little bit different!” He laughs.

Reflecting on the ‘Toxic Positivity’ journey now, Bert summarises: “I think that we live, we learn; from the darkest moments, especially. And being back out on the road, being back with my friends, gives a new perspective on the past three years and what it really means.”

While The Used are back to what they do best – toting effacing emo truths – some things never change. “Putting out a record is always scary,” Bert admits. “It’s just as scary as it was the first time exposing stuff like that. Sometimes it doesn’t feel that great. But in the end, you get the feedback, and you feel the love, and you see the people singing along, so it all makes sense.”■

Taken from the June 2023 edition of Upset. The Used’s album ‘Toxic Positivity’ is out 19th May.