For all the rock purists out there, it’s easy to bash Imagine Dragons for their association with the rock genre. It’s easy to be as outraged as Queens of the Stone Age rocker Josh Homme was when the band won “Best Rock Performance” at the Grammys last year over other certified rock acts like Queens of the Stone Age, Jack White, Led Zeppelin, and Alabama Shakes (At a Texas gig, Homme reportedly vented to the crowd, “F—k Imagine Dragons”). For many, the electronic patches, loops, and samples that Imagine Dragons are famous for employing have no place in “real” rock music.
But to get lost in labels, in the truly infuriating quest for “authenticity,” is to get lost in confusing constructs that hinge on tradition instead of progression (which is, in fact, not very “rock’n’roll” at all). And while Imagine Dragons’ latest album, Smoke + Mirrors, isn’t built on ripping guitar solos or raunchy power chords, nor is it particularly groundbreaking or artistically progressive, it is a decent album by any standards. To focus instead on its labeling—the ways in which it fails to be “rock” or succeeds in being “pop”—is to miss the good on this album, which does outweigh the bad, even if only by a small margin.
As its name suggests, Smoke + Mirrors deals heavily with themes of dark, hidden truths. It deals with moments of unpleasant self-revelation. The great irony is how much of the album is shrouded in smoke and mirrors itself, which may not necessarily be a fault, but an appropriate aesthetic.
The lyrics of “Smoke and Mirrors” ponder, “All I believe / Is it a dream / That comes crashing down on me?” They are hazy lyrics, both self-critical and uncritical. The broadness of the statement, “All I believe,” removes us from a specific emotional grounding within the speaker’s mind, suggesting that the question is more of a nagging, vague feeling as opposed to a deep introspective. It’s a big question with big implications, but it’s all show, without ever getting too close to a tangible truth.
Other lines may get closer, but still remain distant and simplistic in their revelatory criticism. For instance, in “Polaroid,” they muse, “Love is a polaroid, better in picture but never can fill the void,” and in “Dream,” they ponder, “We all are living in a dream but life ain’t what it seems.” The music works to the same effect: it is at times gimmicky and seems more progressive and subversive than it actually is.
“I’m So Sorry” is big and flashy, and indeed, it is the album’s most explosive climax. Imagine the grungy Black Keys sound with heavy electronic patches replacing garage-rock guitars. The synthesizers accompanying the verses of “Gold” and the organ-like patches of “It Comes Back To You” sound a little overdone, like anything that you would hear on top 40 radio stations.
As a whole, Smoke + Mirrors is a little like a combination of Avicii and U2, with the latter especially invoked in the reverb-filled guitar tracks. It’s a combination of two extremely flashy artists, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, the inherent gimmick of these elements gives off the impression that Imagine Dragons isn’t as big and important as they try to appear. Additionally, bringing tired pop sounds to usual rock formulas doesn’t exactly create the revolutionary results that they may be pursuing.
Yet on an album that explores the facades of life that conceal unknown truths, it’s a sonic exploration that is actually quite fitting. It’s also very much redeemed by frontman Dan Reynold’s explosive and dynamic vocals, which are capable of jumping from tender affection to triumphant screaming, as they do on “I Bet My Life.” The songs themselves are actually well written, catchy, and altogether enjoyable, and while they may not be what’s right for the sanctity of rock’n’roll, they may satisfy listeners less concerned with such conventions.
Featured Image Courtesy of Interscope Records