Wednesday, February 18, 2015

IMAGINE DRAGONS- 'SMOKE + MIRRORS' (ALBUM REVIEW)

By: Connor Glowacki

     Las Vegas alternative rock band Imagine Dragons formed back in 2008 and released three EPs that let them explore and hone in on what would be their sound, but it was when they worked with urban producer Alex Da Kidd on their debut album, 2012's 'Night Visions', that they began to find success in the mainstream music community. Yet no one could've expected the acclaim that they would receive from 'Night Visions'. The album has sold a whopping 2.3 million copies in the United States alone off of the strength of hit singles, such as 'It's Time', 'Demons' and a huge smash single in 'Radioactive' that has sold NINE MILLION copies domestically.
Album artwork for 'Smoke + Mirrors'
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
     Imagine Dragons utilized their alternative rock sound with rhythmic and electronic dance music elements that they picked up while working with Alex Da Kidd. They also utilized folk and hip hop to create a sound that no other band has been able to conceive. Some consider Imagine Dragons as the new torchbearers of rock music. However, many criticize this band's success. Imagine Dragons has been referred to by critics as a 'poppy band' with no rock credibility.  So now the band has to not only counter criticisms from the rock community, but also the enormous success of their first album and avoid the dreaded 'sophomore slump'. With all of this in mind, let's take a look at how their new album, 'Smoke + Mirrors', fare in a track by track breakdown.


1.) Shots

Guitarist Wayne Sermon's 'homage'
to U2's The Edge is a highlight of 'Shots'.
     'Shots' kicks off 'Smoke + Mirrors' with a delay ridden guitar riff, almost an homage to The Edge, by guitarist Wayne Sermon. Following that is the inital plea by lead singer Dan Reynolds as he sings, "I'm sorry for everything, for everything I've done".
     The lyrical content in 'Shots' sets the tone for a majority of the songs on the album. The lyrics are introspective and describe the regret from taking certain things in our lives for granted, most notably relatinhsops. And yet Reynold's voice and the instrumentaion feels light and more upbeat, allowing the song to really take off.
     There are 80's sounding keyboards and a dance-rock vibe that shows influences to industrial music. Another listen shows Reynolds utiliizng his falsetto more than the howling vocals he was known for during 'Night Visions'.
     'Shots' was released about a month ago as a promotional single and it's already made it up to number 75 on the Billboard Hot 100. It has a good chance of becoming a hit in 2015 and there are a lot of really good things that this song has to offer.

2.) Gold

     'Gold' is not only VERY different from 'Shots', but it's very different from almost everything else on 'Smoke + Mirrors' in a musical sense. The song opens up with strange tribal chants in the background and interpolates Latin music. 'Gold' was also released as a single before the album dropped and after repeated listens, it has still not grown on me at all.
     The melody is not interetsing or captivating enough to keep me emotionally invested.  When Reynolds howls the chorus, "You no longer feel when you're heart turns to gold," it does remind me a bit of 'Radioactive' from their first album with the electronic breakdowns in the chrous. But this time the musicality doesn't match up with the darker lyrical content.
     Another negative was that I couldn't hear enough of drummer Daniel Platzman or bassist Ben McKee throughout 'Gold'. Synthesizers are great, but if I can only recognize Reynold's vocals and Sermon's light guitar riff in the background, the other insturments are being overpowered. I can appreciate trying something very different with 'Gold', but it  didn't work for me at all.

3.) Smoke + Mirrors

     The title track sounds something like one of Imagine Dragons' musical idols, The Cure, would do. "I wanted your truth, but I wanted the pain," sings Reynolds. The lyrical content could resemble something spiritual, but it's not as clear as it is in other songs on the album.
     The soft vocals and instrumenaion don't show much variety throughout the song and feel plateaued. It's a decent song that has a cool 80's pop vibe, but it's nothing particularly special.

4.) I'm So Sorry

     By this point, there are lots of different sounds and influences that are popping up on 'Smoke + Mirrors'. This continues with 'I'm So Sorry', a song that utilizes hard rock guitar and bass riffs from Sermon and McKee. There's distortion and it feels garage rock inspired. 'I'm So Sorry' is a song that feels like it would've fit in perfectly pn The Black Keys' 2011 'El Camino' album.
     Again lyrically, it's a song about making admends to someone for past mistakes, but acknowledging that you would've made the same decision over and over again. This is a song that could fit in well right now on rock radio and it could turn out to be fan favorite in the concert setting.

5.) I Bet My Life

    'I Bet My Life' was the very first single released from 'Smoke + Mirrors' back last October. Intially, I didn't like it and felt underwhelmed. But surprisingly enough, it's become one of my personal favorites after repeated listens.
As evidenced in 'I Bet My Life', Reynolds'
songwriting has gotten more spiritual in the new album.
Photo Courtesy of USAToday.
     Lyrically, it's another song about admitting past mistakes and admitting that the people closest to you are the ones that you truly depend on in life. Reynolds has even revealed that he wrote 'I Bet My Life' for his parents as an apology for dropping out of school to become a musician.
     This makes the song that much more relatable that a lot of young people go through when they want to follow their dreams. The lyrics are spiritual, inspirational, and anthemic, making it a solid choice for a lead single.
     This song msucially does the difficult job of combining music from different genres and making it work. The gospel choir singing and clapping along during the chorus, the folksy fingerpicked acoustic guitar by Sermon and the delay ridden guitar outro remind me of a mix between Coldplay and U2.

6.) Polaroid

     'Polaroid' is another relateable song describing the faults and doubts that most people have about themselves. Unlike previous songs with similar themes, however, 'Polaroid' never really goes anywhere musically and that makes the theme and lyrics weaker as a whole. Reynolds sings earnestly and displays his strong vocal ability, but 'Polaroid' could've been a great song and is instead just average.

7.) Friction

     'Can't fight the friction," screams Reynolds as this much needed agressive track is 'Smoke + Mirror's' closest example to a 'Radioactive'. 'Friction' reminds me of the latter because of the urgency in the vocals and the variety of the instrumentation.
     It has very tight guitar and bass lines, which gives it a groove. Displaying funk in their music is something I would've not expected from Imagine Dragons and I have to give credit to all of the band members, especially Platzman and McKee, who provide something fresh to the song. There's also a lot of electronic elements, which combined with the funk elements, provides a unique combination from the typical alternative instrumentation.
     'Friction' displays the strengths of Imagine Dragons as a band. They're able to pull different influences and genres and yet keep their core sound true to who they are. This could be another fan favorite at concerts and a song that could give Imagine Dragons more respect in the rock community.

8.) It Comes Back To You

Platzman's  drumming was a highlight
in 'It Comes Back To You'.
     This might've been the first point in the album where I could CLEARLY hear the Platzman and the drums and that can only be a good thing. The instrumentation of the guitar and bass lines resemble late 1980's U2, probably during 'The Joshua Tree' and 'Rattle & Hum' eras.
     Throughout this song, it's evident that Imagine Dragon's three biggest influences are showcased: U2, Coldplay and The Cure. There are many confessional lyrics throughout 'It Comes Back To You' including, "All the things that I could be, I think I learned in therapy'.
     A lot of these lyrics make you think that Reynolds has been in an almost depressed mindset after the huge success of 'Night Visions'.  While that would typically be an incredible moment in someone's life, it's understandable to feel the negative consequences of such huge instant success. Most notably for Reynolds, having to spend extended parts of the year away from his family to tour the world and promote the record.
     Whatever it is, it's becoming clear that 'Smoke + Mirrors' is displaying more personal moments compared to 'Night Visions'.

9.) Dream

     'Dream' utilizes a great combination of sporadic keyboards, a simple drumming pattern from Platzman and haunting background violins to blend with Reynolds' soaring vocals. And it appears to be another song that allows us to learn a little more about Reynolds as a person.
     Lyrically, 'Dream' is about someone living a sheltered life as if it were a dream and not being allowed to see the mess, which is the real, outside world. Reynolds has stated previously in interviews that he had a sheltered upbringing as he grew up in a loving, but Conservative Mormon household.  Knowing that bit of information helps put the song in the proper context and makes me appreciate it taht much more.

10.) Trouble

     'Trouble' does sound like a song that Imagine Dragons would write, record and perform, but with its strumming guitars and rich harmonies, it's more comparable to something commercially successful folk rock acts, like Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers, would do.
     Like the rest of the album, there are a combination of spiritual and inspirational lyrics where Reynolds talks about redemption, prayer, being lost at sea, and trying to find himself.
     The acoustic guitars help give this song an extra dimension and make it interesting to listen to, even if it is straightforward.

11.) Summer

     I was hooked on this song within the first listen and it still feels fresh after repeated listens. The shimmery guitar riff from Sermon finally allow an aura of positivity to shine on this band in the midst of an album full of deep, personal tracks.
     'Summer' sounds like a song that would fit very well on alternative radio stations right now and can be compared to similar groups like Coldplay, Walk The Moon, Bleachers, and Young The Giant.

12.) Hopeless Opus

     Honestly, this song was a let down for me after such quality songs in 'Summer', 'Friction' and 'Trouble' right before. There are a lot of synthesizers and the drumming is solid enough, but 'Hopeless Opus' never goes anywhere musically and I think it could've been a lot better with some variations in dynamics.

13.) The Fall

     This last song also happened to be the longest song off of 'Smoke + Mirrors' after lasting for over six minutes. It's not the bombastic ending that I was expecting, but it did end the album on a positive, upbeat note.
     There are some more inspirational lyrics that, at this point, teeter on the edge of being cliche, but the vocals and instrumentation is solid enough to prevent this song from ultimately being forgettable.

RATING: 

3/5


     I give Imagine Dragons a lot of credit for stepping out of their comfort zone and trying new things with 'Smoke + Mirrors'. That being said, the album is really hit or miss, in terms of where their new influences and experimentations work and where they fall flat.
     'Summer', 'Shots', 'Friction', and 'I Bet My Life' are great moments that showcase new sounds for Imagine Dragons and can allow us to figure out where they want to go from here musically. But other songs like 'Gold', 'Polaroid', 'Hopeless Opus, and 'The Fall' are examples of the types of musical influences they should never try to embody ever again or songs that could've been solid and instead are nothing worthy to remember.
     So is 'Smoke + Mirrors' a sophomore slump for Imagine Dragons? It's very debatable, but remember that 'Night Visions' had similar problems, in terms of consistency.  'Smoke + Mirrors' will keep Imagine Dragons in the forefront of commercially successful rock acts of mainstream music, if for nothing else because very few other rock acts actually sell well in today's complex marketplace.
     I do hope that the band changes some of the themes and emotions inside of their songs. Not every track has to be inspirational or serious. Inspiration and spiritual songs are great, but I'd also like to listen to songs where I can tell the band is just rocking out and loosening up.
     Overall, 'Smoke + Mirrors' is a transitional album that should hopefully allow Imagine Dragons to find out what works and what doesn't work over the scope of an entire record.

FAVORITE THREE SONGS:

1.) Summer                        2.) I Bet My Life                  3.) Friction

What do YOU think about the new Imagine Dragons album, 'Smoke + Mirrors'? Do you like it? Do you hate it? Leave a comment below or tweet me your comment on Twitter @ConnorGlowacki.

1 comment:

  1. Great review Connor! I can't wait to check out this new album!

    ReplyDelete