Album Review: Imagine Dragons, ‘Smoke + Mirrors’

Written by Erin Mathis

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Though Imagine Dragons formed back in 2008, the band didn’t gain much exposure until September of 2012, with their single “It’s Time.” Since then, they have exploded onto the music scene, with their second single “Radioactive” hogging up the No. 1 spot on the Hot Rock Songs chart for a record breaking 23 weeks, and their third single “Demons” reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Pop Songs chart. Many people, myself included, praised the rock band for their ability to take over the typically pop / hip hop dominated charts. Still, some questioned Imagine Dragons’ staying power. It’s rare for a band to gain such success on a first album, and many wondered if they would fall into the phenomenon known as the “sophomore slump” with their second attempt: Smoke + Mirrors.

Before the release of Smoke + Mirrors on February 17th of this year, the band promoted their two singles. First of which is “I Bet My Life”, a song that feels formulaic and packaged neatly, ready for commercials and movie trailers to snatch it up. Its percussion and gentle “oohs” make the song uncomfortably similar to Vance Joy’s “Riptide”, and its lyrics are a bit bland, although catchy. The music video for it has more than 16 million views on YouTube, though one could argue that the video outshines the song itself. The high concept video features breathtaking cinematography, with wide angle shots of Arizona’s mountainous landscape. Also, check out the comments section, where you’ll find teenage girls gushing over, not the music, but the video’s star, 29-year-old Dane DeHaan, also known as Harry Osborn from the Amazing Spider-Man 2 (does he not age?).

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Though “I Bet My Life” was a bit of a let down, their second single, “Shots” (which Lil’ Jon thankfully had nothing to do with), came as adequate compensation. It’s an upbeat dance rock song with synth all over the place, aaaaaand it’s wonderful. The lyrics convey a pretty complex emotion—the fear of hurting someone you love. Dan Reynolds’ vocals are light and emotional as he sings: “From the second that I was born it seems I had a loaded gun / And then I shot, shot, shot a hole through everything I loved.” This song was chosen as the opener for the thirteen track album Smoke + Mirrors, which undoubtedly has a lot of winners, but then again, a lot of “meh” songs as well.

First—the winners: besides “Shots”, this album delivers a variety of summer-time ready songs that you’ll want to dance along to. “I’m So Sorry” opens up with some super groovy guitars, and then transitions into a surprisingly hard and heavy sound, much like something you’d expect from The Black Keys. Next, “Polaroid” has a very simplistic sound—featuring neat drum and clap beats, mixed with a charming twinkling xylophone. The simplicity of the music allows the listener to really focus on the lyrics, which are fun and easy to fall in love with. Through them, Reynolds captures the spirit of a reckless life: “All my life I’ve been living in the fast lane / can’t slow down / I’m a rollin’ freight train.”

“Dream” is a hauntingly beautiful ballad, one that allows Reynolds to really belt out his words with full-fledged emotions. The gentle piano introduced at the beginning remains present throughout the entirety of the song, coming back into focus at the end, and the lyrics are not only thought provoking, but provide the listener with some alluring symbolism as well.

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Next is “Trouble”, which tells the story of a man about to “pack it up and hit the road”. With its military-inspired marching drum beats, the song has a motivational feel, one strong enough to inspire any listener. “Hopeless Opus” on the other hand is just witty, and weird, and all kinds of right. Leave it to Imagine Dragons to put flute on a rock album, and somehow make it work. The entire song just brings a smile to your face, with crazy cool remixing toward the end, and a surprise guitar solo ending that’s reminiscent of Queen’s heyday.

Now for the bad news: the rest of the album is a bit of a snooze fest. First, “Gold” is like nothing I’ve ever heard before, but not in a good way. It has drums and whistles and guy yelling and claps and electronic piano and percussion and sounds of people talking and it’s altogether overwhelming, to say the least. It was a bold attempt, and though a risk-taking band gets my respect, this ambitious song falls flat. The clutter of it slows down any hope of a build up, and the lyrics: “When everything, everything, everything you touch turns to gold,” are pretentious and off-putting.

The song “Smoke + Mirrors”, maybe because it is the album title, already has high expectations—expectations which it fails to meet. It starts slow and pulsating before breaking into an intense drum fill, awkwardly reminding the listener of Phil Collin’s “In The Air Tonight”. And though the lyrics are decent, the song as a whole is slow and repetitive. “It Comes Back To You” is equally as tedious, besides the chill guitar work, which reminds me a bit of Two Door Cinema Club. “Friction” is notable for its out of the box instruments, mainly the Middle Eastern style guitar, but besides that, the song doesn’t present anything worthy of discussion. Finally, “Summer” too, is nothing special, and the album closer, “The Fall”, though pretty at times, has a long fade out that might just put you to sleep.

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With the success of their first album (which, reminder—was a compilation of several EPs), Imagine Dragons really set the bar high for themselves. Though many fans were expecting a Night Visions (Part Two), the reality is that the band has moved on past their old sound, and are now taking time to experiment. Reynolds has said it himself—that the goal of this album was to be different. Yes, as seen in several songs on this album, their attempts may have fallen short. But then again, there are a ton of truly surprising, successful songs as well. So download the songs you like, forget the rest, and if it helps you sleep at night call Smoke + Mirrors a transitional album, because Imagine Dragons isn’t done just yet. They’re still experimenting with their sound, and finding out the direction they want to go in. So let’s support them through their journey and sit in anticipation of what they will bring us next.

Rating: 7/10

Imagine Dragons, ‘Smoke + Mirrors’ is available on iTunes and Amazon.


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