Who the fuck are Imagine Dragons?
Even after going through Smoke + Mirrors, this is a hard question to answer in a meaningful way. Sure, Imagine Dragons are the biggest mainstream rock band right now, but they’re also profoundly faceless. And they aren’t just faceless next to tastemaker indie rock like Japandroids and Cloud Nothings; that’s an easy (and cheap) victory. No, Imagine Dragons’ flaunt a blandness missing from peers in their weight class, like fun., Fall Out Boy, and that guy that does “Riptide”. So, how do they do this? Is their identity made clearer on this album? Let’s take a look at the band’s music and overall aesthetic, and see what we can find out. Let’s start with the name.
A band’s name should introduce their look and vibe before you hear anything. Whereas “Interpol” sounds like some exclusive club or clothing label, or “Mumford & Sons” calls to mind old-timey, suspenders wearing, aw-shucksters [ed: OR NOT], “Imagine Dragons” calls up an image without doing anything with it. “Imagine dragons” doing what? What kind of dragons? Are we imagining dragons as cultural constructs, or actual flying lizards? What do we do with these dragons? It makes you want to grab Dan Reynolds by his black tee-shirt and ask, “Bro, I imagined a fucking dragon, now what?”
Profound dumbness aside, I had a point in mentioning the name. It’s a Blank Slate For Badassness; the name ensures you’re thinking of something cool, you fill it in with your idea of cool, and the end result is like, double cool without effort. And this is what Imagine Dragons functionally does with music: takes whatever trends it can grasp, stomps around for a few minutes, and calls it done. I’ve heard this described as malleability or adaptation, but I don’t buy it for ID. They aren’t like, say, OneRepublic, who can cop styles while still sounding like themselves. No, when Imagine Dragons apes AWOLNATION on the shanty lurch of “Gold”, or lifts the verses from “Riptide” before stealing Mumford & Sons’ kick-drum on “I Bet My Life”, it just sounds like bad imitation. Sometimes this doesn’t have an awful result; OneRepublic knock-off “Hopelessness Opus” is passable, and opener “Shots” is respectable, synth-friendly festival-pop fare. So, in a way, Imagine Dragons lives up to their name: you’ll think of something, it might be ugly, it might be cool. But it’ll be someone else’s idea.
Speaking of “Shots”, that song has some clattering drums in its final chorus that give it extra oomph. They’re also a subtle reminder that, from the summer when “Radioactive” was everywhere to Kendrick Lamar turning the band into the world’s least intricate drumline, drums have been ID’s defining instrument. It makes a degree of sense: drums are the perfect way for a rock band that doesn’t want to be a rock band to be loud. It’s the approach used on the aforementioned duds “Gold” and “I Bet My Life”, but also on the Middle East tinged nu-metal outing “Friction” (which I guess could double as ID’s Linkin Park wanna-be cut?). The drums throughout Smoke + Mirrors are the only thing bolstered by returning producer Alex da Kid; they’ve got enough depth and hip-hop bounce to keep the album’s languid arrangements moving. Being drum-heavy fits the band’s aesthetic; drums are big, dumb, surface noise and instant gratification without any thought involved.
And you know what? Sometimes that’d kind of awesome. It’s the approach Imagine Dragons uses on Smoke + Mirrors‘ best cut, the stomping, cartoonishly overdriven rocker “I’m So Sorry”. It channels the same ranging id that made “Radioactive” resonant, but in a less gimmicky way, and sounds almost like a live cut (if you’re an arena rock band, this is exactly what you should want). Add in that some of Dan Reynold’s mock profound lyrics here actually sound badass (“You’re the son of a stepfather”), that QotSA-lite outro, and it’s a winner. Sure, drums aren’t a thinking man’s instrument of choice, but does everyone need to be burdened with thought?
“Smoke and mirrors”
You cannot be the poster child for bloated, artistically shallow, creatively anemic rock, and name your album Smoke + Mirrors. It’s either trolling or asking for it, with zero middle ground, and this band isn’t smart enough to troll. But how does no A&R, publicist, manager, label exec, anyone not say anything about naming the album Smoke + Mirrors when the music itself is smoke and fucking mirrors?
Ranting aside, the concept of “Smoke and mirrors” on the album runs back to Reynolds’ disillusionment with life after becoming famous. In context, the song “Smoke +Mirrors” (and several cuts from the rest of the album) serve as Imagine Dragon’s “Teenage angst has paid off well.” It’s not ineffective per se, but the band mostly uses the theme to crank out more mopey but nondescript in the vein of hit “Demons”.
And that, to me, is the real smoke and mirrors to this album: fluffy, Coldplayish ballads that aspire for self-reflection, but go up in clouds. Were it not for the clunker “I am the color of boom”, “Polaroid” would pass without notice, and “Dream”, “Summer”, and Mumford redux “Trouble” all drift in one ear and out the other. The back half of this record is so driftless that not even extended, honestly pretty outro on “The Fall” can save it.
Getting back to the start, who the fuck are Imagine Dragons? They’re a band that writes at length about finding themselves, but never told us who they were in the first place. Self-discovery can be a great subject, but when the lyrics, the music, and the delivery are such constant letdowns, there’s no reason to stick around and find out who the real Imagine Dragons is. Night Visions was a sleeper-hit, and that might be true of Smoke + Mirrors as well, so we’ll see. Or it might just disappear in a puff. Two stars out of five.
tl;dr: Imagine Dragons copy a bunch of other people to find themselves. It doesn’t work, 2/5.