The Used deploy nostalgia and catchy riffs on ‘Toxic Positivity’

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) – The Used have been around for quite some time now.

Their first three albums (The Used, In Love and Death, and Lies for the Liars) were key pieces in the pop-punk/alternative scene at the time. The Used has been pretty consistent ever since: putting out albums at regular intervals and touring.

Toxic Positivity is the band’s ninth record, and it shows us not only how the band has changed over time – but also how everything surrounding them has, too.

Vocalist Bret McCracken featured on the deluxe edition of Machine Gun Kelly’s 2020 album Tickets to My Downfall along with Yungblud. Machine Gun Kelly’s transition from hip-hop to pop-punk showcased what an audience still remains for this kind of music.

For me, I chalk it up to partially nostalgia. It’s been almost 20 years since 2004 — which not only featured The Used’s In Love and Death but also was the year of Green Day’s American Idiot and My Chemical Romance’s Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge. It turns out that the audience that listened to bands like The Used back in the early 2000’s still loves and is nostalgic for that music, plus this sound can still appeal to younger audiences. Machine Gun Kelly is selling out arenas and Olivia Rodrigo had one of the most explosive debuts of the decade so far.

Album artwork for The Used's "Toxic Positivity," depicting an illustration of a skeleton barfing up rose petals against a black background.

The Used is back to riding the wave that they helped create, and Toxic Positivity is a clear example of trying to update the pop-punk formula to straddle the line between the old, nostalgic audience and the new blood rushing into the scene.

So how does The Used do it?

The “pop” parts of this pop-punk record are pretty noticeable. First, the song structure. A majority of this record follows a pretty simple pattern: two verses; two choruses a bridge, and another chorus. Considering this 11-track album clocks in at just over half an hour, these songs get in and get out pretty quickly. What really makes the pop appeal of this album is the instantly earworm-y choruses.

The album starts off with my personal favorite “The Worst I’ve Ever Been” but pretty much every one of these songs has a chorus that is going to live rent free in your head for quite a while. Despite the fact that these tracks are structured like pop songs, they still carry the grit I’d expect from The Used. There’s some great screamed vocals in the background of “Headspace,” for example accompanied by deep guitar and bass. While electronics play a large role in Toxic Positivity more often than not, they are tastefully integrated with organic instruments in a way that enhances them and blends nicely.

Lyrically, a majority of what The Used does is pretty quite similar to their past work. Mainly the focus is on mental health. Of course, mental health struggles is a broad theme, so it allows The Used to explore many different aspects of it. Lead single “Numb” is pretty much what it said on the tin, saying “Me and my head are enemies. I’m tired of fighting everything. Lately, I’ve found it tough to give a fuck about anything”. This kind of introspection can also be seen on “Headspace”, a song about how difficult it is to change one’s outlook on life, even if you know it’s for the best and “Top of the World” a song about anxiety over losing a romantic relationship you feel you don’t deserve.

Sometimes however, these internal issues are turned outward on songs such as “The Worst I’ve Ever Been” and “I Hate Everybody”. The effectiveness of which these songs cover their subject matter varies. “I Hate Everybody”. The pre-chorus, chorus and post-chorus feel a little underdeveloped. The verses are solid, but they don’t pull the weight needed to really do the subject matter of “everyone is so happy about the power of love but I’m miserable” justice.

On the other hand, “Top of the World” and “The Worst I’ve Ever Been” are much more eloquent. These really good moments stick out as the majority of the writing on this album lyrically is just serviceable. It’s pretty clear what every song on Toxic Positivity is about, but the commentary on these issues isn’t mind blowing. It is very melodramatic as well, but considering this is an early 2000’s pop-punk band, that’s part of the charm in my opinion.

As a whole album, I enjoyed Toxic Positivity quite a bit. While it has its flaws, mainly in the lyrics, this album is incredibly fun to listen to. While it seems like such a simple concept, these tight and instantly memorable tracks make this record so easy to enjoy. It straddles the line between rock and pop in a way that it’ll be appealing to fans of both. Find myself coming back to and singing along to a strong majority of this album quite often, and considering I listened to it quite a few times for this review, I still enjoyed it every time.

Considering how brief each song, and the LP in general is, no idea overstays its welcome. On shorter albums like this, I’ll typically find songs that I think needed to be longer, but Toxic Positivity defies that. There’s not a lot of fat on this record and its brevity works overall in its favor. If you are a fan of pop-punk or any adjacent styles of music, I’d say Toxic Positivity is worth a listen. It’s packed with so many fun songs, you’re bound to get your time’s worth out of it.