Smoke + Mirrors

Imagine Dragons

Columbia, 2015

http://www.imaginedragonsmusic.com

REVIEW BY: Melanie Love

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/23/2015

There are some reviews I’ve written that I look back on and wholeheartedly agree with, whether it’s one or nine (!) years later. No regrets on gushing over Death Cab For Cutie in 2006, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t go to the mat for the Kaiser Chiefs as the best album of 2005 over Arcade Fire’s Funeral. Live and learn!

Which brings us to my effusive review of the 2012 debut from Las Vegas rockers Imagine Dragons. I was won over by their brand of catchy pop underpinned with darker, soul-searching lyrics – but then, so was the rest of the music world, as that disc brought the band a whole slew of accolades and worldwide sales, including the longest-charting single on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Radioactive” (produced by Alex Da Kid, who is back at the helm of Smoke + Mirrors).

But as I’m making my way through the band’s sophomore release, I’m wondering if I was a little too on the nose by comparing Imagine Dragons to OneRepublic, but with “staying power.” Indeed, Smoke + Mirrors debuted at number one on the Billboard charts, solidifying the Dragons as a behemoth in the pop-rock world. But in terms of sound, it seems as if the band is struggling with that eternal question: how do you follow up on a smash hit? How do you manage to grow your sound while still churning out the anthemic sing-alongs that got you so far? It’s the double-edged sword of success, but it feels like the band was more concerned with style than substance on this disc.nbtc__dv_250

Things do start off strong with a batch of singles as Imagine Dragons does best, pairing rafter-raising melodies with lyrics that are shot through with despair and optimism. The first line of the disc is “I’m sorry for everything that I’ve done,” followed by vocalist Dan Reynolds bemoaning “From the second I was born it seems I had a loaded gun / And then I shot, shot, shot a hole through everything I loved.” The self-flagellation and regret is delivered via his soaring falsetto and tricked out with shimmering synths, creating a dynamic, almost U2 quality that the band can pull off at their best.

Meanwhile, one of the more unique offerings on the album, second single “Gold” has a stuttering, hip-hop flair that matches the raw, ominous lyrics well. When Reynolds belts out, “I’m dyin’ to feel again / Oh, anything at all / But I feel nothing” as the wall of heavily reverbed guitars staggers and collapses around him, it’s cynical and sinister and totally cool. Title track “Smoke And Mirrors” and lead single “I Bet My Life” are earnest, sweeping, stick-in-your-head pop, while “I’m So Sorry” tries out a stomping, thunderous rock wail, to somewhat solid effect. 

But at barely the halfway point, the album starts to crumble and fray at the edges. Each song is diverse and elaborate (the band describes this disc as incorporating influences from around the world, which sounds as vague in theory as it does in practice); but it doesn’t add up to a cohesive or a personal sound. I get the sense that the quartet was stretching at self-imposed boundaries, piling on new textures and instruments in an effort to do something new.

That’s why you get songs like the vague “Polaroid” that just trails along and the plodding, synth-drowned “Dream,” or “Friction,” whose random Middle Eastern melody and sharp, stabbing vocals add up to a strange, unenjoyable listening experience. Dragging on to the end, “Hopeless Opus” is unnecessarily cheesy, and not even Reynolds’ lovely and dynamic voice can really save it, while there is no reason for closer “The Fall” to last for six minutes.

At 50 minutes long, Smoke + Mirrors is an overlong slog that obscures much of what is actually endearing about Imagine Dragons. When they pare back all the theatrics, there is some talented songcraft here, and I bet a lot of these songs would sound great live. But as it stands now, Smoke + Mirrors is as its title sounds: a lot of shine and a lot of bluster, but not a lot to hold on to.

Rating: C-

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