The Used’s Bert McCracken Unravels Carefully Woven New Album, ‘Heartwork’ — Interview
The Used didn’t write their new record, Heartwork, knowing that there would be a veritable plague that was about to ravage the globe and put millions of people into mandated isolation. However, it is a record that happens to be uniquely suited to these times. Heavily invested in great literary works such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and Shakespeare’s many tragedies, among others, Heartwork recalls a time when vocalist Bert McCracken was himself in isolation.
“I started getting really into reading when I was in recovery and going through rehab,” he shares. On the road to sobriety, McCracken began consuming monumental works of literature voraciously, replacing his physical cravings with intellectual ones. Not only is the new record littered with references to these great thinkers and writers, but this is the lens through which McCracken worked through his own personal experiences.
Much in the same way John Milton wrote his epic poem Paradise Lost, a timeless story of heaven and hell, as a kind of parallel for his own reality in England during a time of religious and political unrest, Heartwork refers to Paradise Lost as its own road map.
“I don’t have any new ideas,” McCracken says plainly, “I just steal them.” He turns to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, too, as the ultimate field guide to depression, which he gladly uses. “There has never been a better, more complete analysis of depression,” he opines.
Gothic writer Shirley Jackson’s highly anthologized short story “The Lottery” inspired a track on Heartwork of the same name, featuring Beartooth’s Caleb Shomo, which The Used vocalist sees as an instructive parallel for “the dangers of blindly following tradition” in the current age of destructive monkey-see, monkey-do social media.
And of course, anyone who has seen The Used perform live in recent memory can recall McCracken dramatically reciting Shakespearean soliloquies from the likes of Twelfth Night, Hamlet, and Macbeth. (Adorably, he has also passed his love for the bard to his daughter: “She has about 60 soliloques memorized now.”)
Perhaps most significantly to diehard The Used fans, McCracken steals ideas from himself. Heartwork is its own Easter egg hunt, featuring numerous references to previous songs and records. Anyone keen on scene history will also revel in a reference to a “black parade,” to which McCracken’s only response is, “My Chem and The Used have a storied history,” making sure to clarify all is fine and dandy between the two icons.
The most obvious Easter egg is the title of the record itself. McCracken sees similarities between this latest creative mission and the band’s 2009 record, Artwork, in terms of emotional and artistic investment. However, there is one important difference:
“Artwork was a very labored experience,” he reflects. “This felt easier and more fun.”
For the listener, too, Heartwork is a fun, eclectic and yet cohesive record. You’ll hear sections that are reminiscent of The Used’s beloved albums Self-titled and In Love & Death. You’ll hear electronic beats, pop hooks, and rabid vocals by Jason Aalon Butler (The Fever 333, letlive.) all somehow fitting together like puzzle pieces.
“Form and content are inextricable,” he says. “Even Milton changed form halfway through because he realized the effect of rhyme.” Between the lyrical and musical content, Heartwork is essentially a Rubik’s Cube of meaning and sound.
So while you’re barred from the rest of the world, made to spend days inside and perhaps alone, take the time to truly absorb this record. Explore the primary texts Bert McCracken turned to in his own days of isolation. Heartwork is an opportunity to turn the volume up to 11 while also sinking deep inside yourself. It’s an opportunity to feel something.
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