Halfway through the second track of Imaginary Enemy, I exclaimed, “They’ve finally done it- they’ve put it all together on an album.” This was right around the bridge of “Cry,” when vocalist Bert McCracken cuts through a series of electronic effects to offer a guttural screech of “Nicer than that.” What follows is a punishing 25 seconds of metal riffs provided by guitarist Quinn Allman and bassist Jeph Howard.
The opening track, ”Revolution,” and the track I spoke about above, “Cry,” are just about everything I could possibly expect in an album from The Used. They’re upbeat, incendiary emo anthems. If only the rest of the album could be like that.
Any goodwill the album’s first two (admittedly really great) tracks have built up is stifled, and then suffocated, by the track that follows, the obnoxiously titled “El-Oh-Vee-Ee.” “El-Oh-Vee-Ee” is a song which can’t decide whether it wants to be a mid-tempo ballad (as evidenced by the yawn-inducing chorus) or a cluttered metalcore track (as it’s bridge and outro tries to display.)
This sort of schizophrenic switch between genres continues on into the middle section of the album, as the politically-charged “A Song to Stifle Imperial Progression” bounces between dance beats, power chords, and electronic bleeps, never sticking with one genre long enough to build momentum. The Used appear to be attempting to criticize aspects of the United States political system, but between the heavily effected vocals and the unfiltered lyrical approach, the message the song is attempting to provide is unclear. “A burning bush, the Bay of Pigs, the CIA, I guess if Daddy helped the Nazis its okay…”McCracken begins the song, before transitioning straight into “Try mixing blood and oil in the Middle East,” in the next verse. If The Used were looking to take a specific introspective look into the corrupt United States approach, their approach could’ve been a lot more specific and hard-hitting. Instead, they vaguely spew anti-government sentiments like “We’re saying no way, no way, USA.”
If there’s one theme that seems to thread throughout Imaginary Enemy, it’s a thread of disillusionment with the current state of things- a disillusionment that The Used don’t seem to be entirely sure how to fix. “Generation Throwaway” seems to lament the idea that this current generation is looked at in disdain by older generations, and desires to “take it back,” but never states exactly what it is that the “generation throwaway” had before they lost it.
The choruses on Imaginary Enemy are certainly the largest The Used have produced since their self-titled debut twelve years ago; this is partly due to the renewed strength of McCracken’s vocal performance, which actually might be his best ever. “Make Believe,” though largely forgettable musically, is powered by the restrained, yet still powerful vocal performance. In fact, I wish they let McCracken loose more. The energy in his vocals on “Cry” is absolutely infectious, and his ability to transition straight from soaring high vocals to guttural screams is near-unmatched in the scene. I was waiting for “Evolution” to explode into an epic outro (as the floor toms and strings kick it seems they are build towards something), but instead the song just abruptly ends. That sense of fleeting excitement characterizes my feelings for much of the back half of the album
In a lot of ways, this record reminds me of Hit The Lights’ Invicta. Both bands are obviously from completely different musical backgrounds, but they both decided to take a risk and release a straightforward pop-rock record. And both bands fall into the same trouble, as the back half of their albums begin to feel a little too familiar. In fact, “Kenna Song” could’ve very easily been an Invicta B-side. It’s not that Imaginary Enemy is necessarily a bad record (in fact, it has some of The Used’s best material in more than 10 years), but it’s just not all that memorable either.