If you want to be in any way entertained, intellectually challenged, or culturally enriched, of all the new music releasing today—and there is plenty, from The Amazing to the Juliana Hatfield Three to former B-52 Katie Pierson’s Guitars and Microphones—Imagine Dragons’ sophomore Smoke + Mirrors is not your answer.
Oh sure, you’re going to hear songs from this record. Incessantly. The radio will be rife with the Dragons’ bass drops, postured drum pounding, and ‘80s synthesizer effects, much the same as it was before today. Their prior success dictates that it wouldn’t make a bit of difference even if all the new songs were mashups between cat sounds and dental drills, mainstream radio would be all over that shit.
Musically, will you notice the difference between their first album’s omnipresent breakout hit “Radiocative” and a song, say, “Friction,” from the new one?
Only if you listen very carefully.
You will, however, immediately recognize “Friction,” and any of the twelve other tracks on Smoke + Mirrors, as being stylistically from this particular band. There is no real sonic differentiation or progression between albums. In fact, there is nothing here to indicate that this isn’t the result of a board meeting between band members and an aging major label A&R guy spit balling ideas based on trending sounds and musical genres.
Okay, the A&R guy would say, excitedly brushing his gel-soaked comb over back into place, sweat pooling in the deep furrows of his spray tanned forehead. We need an undercurrent of Coldplay and hip hop, but mix it up with EDM and Autotune, and get some ‘80s synth effects in there. I want handclaps and echo! Drench it with reverb! And make sure it will play well during an NFL game.
The rest is history. That is, if anybody will ever remember it.
To their credit, that the band has a style a listener can immediately identify is a monumental feat in today’s mostly flat and beige pop music landscape. They should be commended for it.
Unfortunately, that “sound” reads like a greatest hits collection of “things that are or have been trendy” mashed together into a ProTools casserole of “shit the kids will buy if we play it enough on the radio.”
It sounds desperate.
Described by ringleader Dan Reynolds as “normal guys who like to read books and play chess and computer games and create music,” the Imagine Dragons dudes cut their teeth playing countless long hours in Nevada area casinos before hitting it big. As Reynolds noted, “I never even knew anybody would hear that album other than a thousand fans that we have on the west coast.”
Millions of album sales later, the cat is definitely out of the bag. Will they suffer from a sophomore slump, or buckle under the pressure to reproduce the fiscal windfall of their debut? Reynolds isn’t concerned.
“You have that going through your mind, that the first album was this big mainstream success, so the second album has to make a statement,” he explained via phone on the eve of the new album’s release. “I just tried to put it all out of my head and embrace what’s real for me as a writer. I love big poppy songs, I have since I was young. I know some people are gonna hate that, especially people that feel Imagine Dragons is a torchbearer for rock music, which I never thought was something that Imagine Dragons is.”
Haters are gonna hate, it’s true. And at least he cops to their designation as a pop act—one who is so tied to the mainstream that they premiered a song not through a music website or a daytime television show, but instead as a live performance during a paid Target commercial in the midst of, not subtly, the Grammys.
“It was their (Target’s) idea. We were a little nervous, ‘cause it’s never been done before, and if it goes sour it goes sour,” Reynolds explained. “It’s the first time a commercial was done live. It was nerve wracking, but it was cool to be part of it.”
I could go on for hundreds more words explaining just how tepid an unnecessary Smoke + Mirrors is, and why it is that way, or how it came to be that way. It would be an example of art imitating life, or, more accurately, the other way around. Maybe, in one of the longer paragraphs, I would take a low-hanging-fruit swipe at the name Smoke and Mirrors. That would be fun.
But you know what? I won’t waste any more of your or my time. I’m not even going to bother with a conclusion-drawing closing paragraph. This album is not worth the effort or attention, even if that will not stop you from hearing it coming out of any possible music emitting orifice for the next two years.