Imagine Dragons’ Are The Heir Apparent To Stadium Packing Sound Like Creed, On ‘Smoke + Mirrors’, But Formulas Hold It Back From True Glory

Written by taylor
/ 8 mins read

On the heels of their mega successful debut studio album Night Visions, Las Vegas natives Imagine Dragons deliver more of the same, albeit with a little bit more eclecticism with second studio album Smoke + Mirrors, which continues the trend of catch-all anthemia, a boon for Imagine Dragons fans everywhere, yet a challenge for a discerning music fan like myself who tends to be underwhelmed by the formulas present here, however layered or bombastic their individual sound designs. What this band is good at is making tracks loud and concussive and exciting in the most obvious of ways. Many folks are pleased with their style, and even moved to tears by certain concepts and sentiments expressed lyrically – words supercharged by all of the kinetic instrumentation at hand. I will offer, by way of comparison, that the Post Alt Rock band Creed was also, at one time, the most popular Rock band of its time. Ask any music fan – or even music layman, about the relevance of Creed now, and I would say they are not as cool, or as boundlessly talented in our collective perceptions, as they were in their highly advertised heyday. By the way, I should say, I saw through the commercialism back then, to the core of what that band was – basic songwriters with a spiritual, redemptive power which was as appealing then as it is now with Imagine Dragons, who likewise seem to avoid complicated notes and black keys in favor of easy and expected melodies and writing. They just happen to incorporate many more influences than Creed, ranging from Synth to Hip Hop beats to Revivalist Soul to Folk, against Creed’s strictly Hard Rock and Alternative output. Despite various influences fusing into one loud and bold sound, Imagine Dragons are consistently categorized as Pop Rock, because, under all that noise, the notation is all Pop – exhibiting a disinterest with reinventing anything or challenging its listener artistically. What Imagine Dragons do have to offer is great instrumentation and fantastic vocals from front man Dan Reynolds.

The Album Starts With Some Great Excitement, And Initially Recalls The Successes Of Duran Duran

“Shots” is an exciting Electro Pop dance number that Imagine Dragons is really good at perfecting, as they balance the New Wave elements with enough sing-along Pop formula to invite all audiences to join in. Whether this is a good analogy or not, Duran Duran can be viewed as many things in today’s day and age – from Synth Pop to Yacht Rock to Sophisti-Pop, but what they were most known for is there accessible and exciting eighties formulas, I feel. In the same way, Imagine Dragons serve this formulaic role for a whole new generation, and are certainly on par with Duran Duran in terms of household recognition. Conversely, “Gold” represents the all over the place train wreck of sound that Imagine Dragons sometimes exhibit, as they mix here faux Gospel vibrations with off time Soul claps, knee-jerk transitions in style, sickly muddy harmonies, sound/gain drops implemented for dramatic effect that simply annoy the listener (same tricks used on “Believer” later on), and oh yeah – a bunch of fucking whistling for no reason whatsoever, except that I guess it’s trendy. This is a God awful song – and more of a speaker and sub woofer tester to be honest, than an actual arrangement anyone would seriously listen to. “Smoke + Mirrors” hits some of that Duran Duran and Phil Collins sense of Synth Pop again, especially with orchestra drum breakdown parts, and is definitely mesmerizing for both the mood it invokes and the clever instrumentation. Yet it is troubling to me for its mean-nothing lyrics, which cynically says all is hopeless while also stating that you need hope? Bad lyricism 101. Then it’s back to boom clap banging Rock with “I’m So Sorry”, the type that all Pop Rock bands make, except perhaps Imagine Dragons are the most adept at this style? Sure, maybe, but if I’m not working out, or watching cheerleaders at half time, I don’t have a purpose for this on-the-nose Rock foot stomper, which is either about young angst and how embarrassing this life phase is to look back upon when older, or about some complicated stepfather and stepson relationship which goes through some trials and tribulations due to the stepson’s anger over the divorce and the loss of his real father. I think.

So What’s Up With The Millennial Whooping, I Ask?

Millennial whooping Indie Folk graces our ears with “I Bet My Life”, because that is a killer money making sound y’all. I am so waiting for the song to break into a “I belong to you, you belong to me” segue like the familiar folk sounds of The Lumineers 2012 hit “Ho Hey”, but all joking aside, there some original moments that are memorable here as well. “Polaroid” features Dan Reynolds sing-rapping his lyrics over a fuzzy and subtle boom clap structure, but man, does this song drag, even during its supposedly big parts. Though the iconic chords for The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” is present in the background, they do nothing to save this mundane slog of a song, which ultimately is just an exercise which includes the swapping of high intensity and low intensity measures. “Friction” is a weird one that I continue to not be so sure about, as it mixes pretty derivative elements of Nine Inch Nails and even a little Rage Against the Machine in the rap verse parts, albeit with a little more Soul courtesy of Dan Reynolds’ great vocal chops. As interesting as the rhythm is on “Friction”, by far the funkiest beat on the whole album is “It Comes Back To You”, which accompanies a simple yet moving melody, even while this arrangement includes – that’s right – more millennial whooping, though, I can forgive these tropes and frivolities because the drumming and rhythm guitar are so perfectly grooving and mysterious. Extremely confusing lyrics abound, yet a theme emerges of obsession, and being trapped in a vicious cycle, so I will offer that this song is about drug addiction in some way – as some of the lyrics refer to the behavior and thinking of an addict – although nothing here is specific. Furthermore, nothing here is poetic either, but rather, just juxtapositions of certain positions. I do tire of the actually weak writing of Imagine Dragons, as they try to aggrandize prose that could really use a rewrite or two and more interesting vocabulary. “Dream” is good because it’s Gospel moments are not so predictable, even getting ghostly and ethereal in ways that I respond to. Alas, I simply tire of the return to quiet moments, preceding exponentially louder musical arcs, ultimately wishing for the song to be over and done with.

All’s Well That Ends Well

“Trouble” haphazardly mixes Indie Folk, military marching, and raw Rock edge, and as it builds, you hope it will be a successful and satisfying release, until you realize that it all leads to the same phrased melody, made overloud and complicated. Yet thankfully, a dizzying time signature of a beat blows my socks off again with “Summer”, as it creatively searches for more and more sonic ecstasy, bringing together an almost Afro Pop rhythm with heavenly whimsical vocals that recall the wonderful sound of Americana. This is an even more fascinating beat than “Friction.” There are some cool beat and melody elements on the hard drumming anthem of “Hopeless Opus”, but the most memorable aspects here are the Asiatic undertones present – yet an inspection of the lyrics leads to, again, a frustratingly unclear picture, with the only semi coherent lyrics being “I've got this place / that I've filled with empty space / oh I'm trying not to face what I've done”, while other parts of the text refer to nonsense characters such as Mr. cage man, Mr. fate man, Mr. safe man, and Mr. post man, all entities that could represent daily fixes or necessities (such as Mr. post man being the one who delivers the much needed royalty check that the down and out entertainer is desperately in need of), though most of the language here is inaccessible and pretentious. By the time of “The Fall”, I am pretty exhausted by Imagine Dragons incoherence, even if I do enjoy the U2 attempts at wrap around feel good whimsical Rock – with a splash of that text book American Indie Folk ‘hope’ that fans can’t get enough of. Mission accomplished, and money in the bank, undoubtedly, but damnit, I honestly don’t know what any of these songs are on about, thematically, that is, at the end of the day. It’s just a bunch of songs about ill defined internal conflict, and after thirteen songs of this, I need some more music that is ‘clearly’ about something tangible.

2. Track List (13)

3. Official (13)

4. Live (13)

5. Featuring Remixes (7)

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9. Album Info


Smoke + Mirrors is the second studio album by American rock band Imagine Dragons. The album was recorded during 2014 at the band's home studio in Las Vegas, Nevada. Self-produced by members of the band along with English hip-hop producer Alexander Grant, known by his moniker Alex da Kid, the album was released by Interscope Records and Grant's KIDinaKORNER label on February 17, 2015, in the United States.
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