By Melissa Fossum
By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
By New Times
The Used has been in survival mode its entire career — a trait that's come in handy in the ever-shifting, ever-volatile music industry.
Long before the band's brand of shouty screamo fell out of grace as the de rigueur music genre of disenfranchised (but still MTV) youth, frontman Bert McCracken spent time homeless, abusing drugs and alcohol, and panhandling for food. In retrospect, it almost seems too much of an up-by-your-bootstraps success story: McCracken went from editing an anti-drug publication in Orem, Utah, to doing crystal meth, only to emerge a rock star after cleaning up.
The bruised backstory played heavily into the success of The Used's self-titled 2002 album for Reprise Records. McCracken roared and emoted at the mic, backed by guitarist Quinn Allman, bassist Jeph Howard, and drummer Dan Whitesides. His street-level anthems of self-disgust and frustration resonated with listeners, and the band's lean toward melodic metal ensured that fans of Thursday and Papa Roach would find something to grab on to. The record was a smash hit.
The band's subsequent albums failed to match that success. 2004's In Love and Death, 2007's Lies for the Liars, and 2009's Artwork were good (particularly the last one, a brutal record about coming to terms with self-hate), but they never monetized the way the self-titled effort did. The band knew its days on a major label were numbered.
With Vulnerable, the band gracefully made the transition to an indie, Hopeless Records, and the move did them good: Thick with hip-hop qualities and shifting tempos, the record explored new territory while returning to the band's melodic post-hardcore roots.
"I wanted to make a record that reflected the energy and emotion of the first record but also gathered from our eclectic influences," McCracken says. "We're all fans of eclectic music — old hip-hop, R&B, funk, and jazz. I grew up on Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, and classic rock like Journey, Heart, and The Beatles. Jeph listens to a lot of Mr. Bongo's weird projects, Dizzee Rascal, and British hip-hop."
Vulnerable reflects that diversity, but Vulnerable II, an expanded , two-disc version of the record loaded with B-sides, acoustic cuts, and leftover material, shows it in action. The creative strength of the collection is in part due to an unexpected creative burst from McCracken. He realized his creativity was being sapped by a painkiller habit he picked up after a 2011 on-stage spill, and the decision to get off the meds spurred an artistic outpouring.
"Being a drug addict and alcoholic is something that is a part of me, and that comes out in my lyrics," McCracken says. "A lot of these songs that you may think are about love and relationships are just my relationship with drugs and alcohol."
Kicking the pills provided an emotional and mental catalyst for the record, but so did being dropped by Reprise. The Used seems to work best when embracing its underdog attitude, and the move away from the label and its parent company, Warner Bros., allowed McCracken to turn the pressure down and assess where the band's strengths and motivations lie.
"It's nice when you actually don't have a label looking over your shoulder. Over the years, everyone's really come into their own when it comes to being comfortable with the artists we are," McCracken says. "We're in an older generation of music. All the bands we take out now are 10 years younger than us. Now we understand why we're doing this more and what to expect from it."
Growth and maturity aside, McCracken still can't suppress some of his street-urchin tendencies. In fact, McCracken has some advice for those thinking of picking up the band's newest album:
"I encourage people to go steal it from Walmart."