Junk Mail: Imagine Dragons 'Smoke + Mirrors' Album Review
Welcome to Junk Mail, where a few Music Times staffers email back-and-forth about each week's biggest release throughout the work day. This week, Carolyn Menyes, Kyle Dowling and Caitlin Carter chat about Imagine Dragons's new album Smoke + Mirrors. Feel free to join the conversation in the comments section, and check back next week for more.
Carolyn Menyes: I always feel like it's important to be open in these Junk Mails, so I will be the first to admit that I LOATHE Imagine Dragons. Objectively, I can understand when they release an appealable song and I guess I can get their mass appeal? But, personally, Night Visions is just terrible, faux epic music that builds you up to nothing. Just vague statements about "Demons." That being said, the new album Smoke + Mirrors is an improvement both on the objective and subjective front. I don't hate it -- which seriously -- is shocking.
Caitlin Carter: Carolyn, I came into this album similarly. There's ironically nothing more boring than sounding epic.
However, the mixed-genre approach that they've taken on Smoke + Mirrors at least kept me engaged. This time around they sound like a mix of Coldplay, U2, Mumford & Sons and The Killers with a hint of Arcade Fire and The Black Keys in there -- no wonder their sound is so marketable. I will say that Imagine Dragon perfectly fits the bill for "modern rock" because it's definitely not your bread-and-butter rock 'n' roll. It's a very 2015 mix of hip-hop beats, EDM synth, expansive guitar work and crashing drums. "Imagine Something Massive" could easily be their band name.
Kyle Dowling: I only listened to the hits from Imagine Dragons' last album. I was fine with "Radioactive" - but only when Kendrick Lamar was involved. If he wasn't, I really wanted nothing to do with it. However, I will say that one thing the band has is the ability to mix up their sound, which I believe is what Caitlin mentioned. They certainly mixed up each song on Smoke + Mirrors. At first, I was thinking of it as jarring, but after a couple of listens I appreciate the fact that each song seems like a different genre ... or, at the very least, an attempt at a different genre. Having said that, I don't see many songs on this album hitting as hard as "Radioactive" did.
CM: I definitely got that blend from Imagine Dragons, too. They really take in the successful aspects of every "epic" band in the game (you did a great job of listing them of, Cailtin), adding in some hip-hop beats and a poppy hook (which Mumford perfected) and selling it to the masses. That and the general "go get 'em" lyrical aspect of their first hits just begs for incredibly long runs on the Billboard Hot 100.
Like you pointed out, Kyle, each song on Smoke + Mirrors has something different to offer, be it rousing singalong choruses ("I Bet My Life"), industrial Nine Inch Nails style distortion ("Friction"), Black Keys-esque blues ("I'm So Sorry") or jangling self loathing ("Shots"). It has a little something for everybody while still being distinctively Imagine Dragons. Plus, this album is much more lyrically interesting than their last one.
CC: For some reason I kept imagining (no pun intended) Carrie Underwood singing "I'm So Sorry." Without all of the crunchy distortion and effects, it could easily be a country song based on the melody and hook.
As for what I liked, I was intrigued by the intro of "Gold" and was a fan of "Dream" and "Summer." Overall, the use of instrumentation across the album was pretty interesting. It's so detailed and full. However, I'd be interested to hear what Imagine Dragons would sound like stripped down. I wonder if it would still stand as strong. Maybe all this overproduction is just, gasp! smoke and mirrors.
KD: I would agree, Carolyn, that the lyrics are pretty interesting. They're rather raw at point and very straight forward, which I've always found endearing in an artist. And I'll agree with you, Caitlin, about "Gold." The intro is rather well produced, and I'll speak highly (highly for ID, that is) of the chorus. Dare I say that the chorus is ... gold?
It's hard for me to get beyond how much like Coldplay they sound on "Smoke and Mirrors" - It's almost scary. Then comes "I'm So Sorry," which I'm not particularly a fan of, but it's a complete 180.
And here's a random question, is "I Bet My Life" in a commercial?
CM: A cursory Google search found that the song was in a Jeep Cherokee commercial and maybe Sprite, too.
I guess why I brought up the lyrics of Smoke + Mirrors is that it made me feel a little more endearing to Dan Reynolds. "Shots" is filled with self-loathing "I shot down everything I love." Wow. "Trouble" also finds Reynolds looking for redemption and at one point he sings "I'm trying to find me," which is very relatable. "Hopeless Opus," "I'm So Sorry" even "Gold" all deal with his struggles with depression, which he also opened up about in a recent Billboard cover feature. It's humbling and much more easy to connect to than whatever "It's Time" is about.
CC: I think that was a good move on his part, to make the album a little more personal. When you have a sound that is so epic and expansive, you sort of need some humanity to tie it down. You can't have a big sound with big abstract lyrics. So I applaud Reynolds for recognizing that.
As far as songs that weren't for me... "Polaroid," "Friction," "Shots," and "The Fall" make the thumbs-down list for me. What about you guys?
KD: Absolutely, personal lyrics tend to be the ones people can connect with. It can only add to the music, so kudos to him on that part.
I'll wag my finger at "Friction" over and over again. I really didn't care for the track. I was okay with the bass line in the beginning, but once the singing started I was done. Honestly, it's the only one on Smoke + Mirrors I really couldn't find something to like.
CM: Like I mentioned, "Friction" felt like Imagine Dragons' attempt at being Nine Inch Nails. The rest of the album definitely has its influences but it all flows together. As for "Friction," it sticks out like a sore thumb. I think the third quarter of the album ("Friction," "It Comes Back To You," "Dream," "Trouble") really drags. Sleepy tempos don't do Imagine Dragons well, so it just feels a little messy. And while I love the lyricism of "Trouble," holy crap, that is one cheesy melody.
Dan Reynolds' singing voice sounds so remarkably like Coldplay's Chris Martin that a song like "It Comes Back to You" just sounds like a rip-off.
And I like "Gold." It's creepy.
CC: He really does sound a lot like Chris Martin. It's strange considering they are from different countries. What's interesting, though, is that despite all the comparisons we've made to other bands like Coldplay, U2, Nine Inch Nails, etc., there is really no band out there right now that sounds like Imagine Dragons. They are almost an alternative to alternative rock. It's weird that somehow this ID doesn't sound completely generic.
KD: Perhaps they just have so many different influences and are drawing (or ripping) from each and every one? Whether or not it can come across as jarring (at times) doesn't change the fact that they've been able to crack the industry and earn themselves some attention. And having Kendrick Lamar help them out certainly didn't hurt. But it's great to see growth with Smoke + Mirrors, despite how you feel about them.
CM: I definitely agree with both of your points. One, Kendrick Lamar basically makes everything ever better (Chris Brown's "Autumn Leaves," anyone?). And yeah. Each of the songs on Night Visions really felt formulaic, especially those overplayed singles. I'm overcoming some nameless adversity and my kingdom's come and I'm radioactive and overcoming my demons. YAWN. I hate to keep harping on the point, but Reynolds really opened up on this album -- I feel like I understand him more as a person now, and it helps me to like his band a little more.
I do love the growth.
What do you guys think of the commercial viability of Smoke + Mirrors? So far the singles ("I Bet My Life," "Shots") have only middled on the Hot 100. Given, it was a slow climb for "Radioactive" and "Demons," but can the band match its success with this album?
CC: That whole Target commercial performance during the Grammys proved that companies want to spend money on them at least. Seeing as there wasn't much fanfare leading up to this release, I think it might be a slow climb once again.
KD: I honestly don't see any track on this album amounting to the success of "Radioactive" and "Demons" - but given they were slow climbs as well, perhaps I'm wrong. As of right now, however, I don't think it'll match the success. But as Caitlin mentioned, companies are backing them so we shall see!
CM: Yeah. And I'm notoriously terrible at predicting chart success -- though I did call "Prayer in C" hitting America a while ago.
Back to the point, the singles thus far are "I Bet My Life" and "Shots." "Shots" had that Grammys commercial boost, so people's interests are piqued. "Shots" also has a really great hook and an '80s style groove. Give it time, I think it could be a hit.
Any other potential hits you guys hear? What should be the next singles?
CC: I'd like to see "Summer" be a single, but I don't think it will be unless they are trying to show some versatility. There wasn't anything on there that really screamed radio hit. Obviously "Shots" has that sort of quality, but not too much left. They were probably smart to put "I Bet My Life" as the lead single. That Mumford-rip-off sound has done well for One Direction at least.
KD: I definitely think the singles they've put out were smart choices. From the get go, no matter how much we may or may not like "Shots," the song is pretty catchy. And "I Bet My Life" has a chorus that'll linger in your head all day long. Aside from them, I think "Trouble" could do it. It's got a radio-friendly feel matched with some Chris Martin-esque vocals.
CM: Those are definitely some "Shots" fired, Caitlin.
CM: I'm not going to walk away from Smoke + Mirrors as a fan, per se. I still think there's something inherently cheesy about the epicness of this band. Though that factor is definitely cooled down on their sophomore effort, it's enough to make this Junk Mailing my sole listening experience. However, I think the band is definitely growing. I love the vulnerability of the lyrics and the sounds they're playing around here. Who knows? Maybe album three will win me over as an actual fan.
CC: Smoke + Mirrors was a great step forward as far as relatable lyrical content, and the eclectic production kept things interesting. Although there was not big standout, Grammy-bait hit on there, the album was a lot better than I expected it to be. I surprisingly finished it not hating the band, and I might even keep spinning "Summer" after this Junk Mail is over.
KD: It's great to see that Imagine Dragons is expanding their reach as a group. Smoke + Mirrors appears to be a step in the right direction. They've obviously got quite a few different influences, and I hope they're able to grab attention and one day not be known for sounding like Coldplay, Mumford and so on. If they continue on the road they're on then it's very well possible that album number 3 could be the best yet.