Sound — 7
Like it or not, pop and rock have always been in cahoots from day one, when rock and roll was first invented and there wasn't as clear of a delineation between the two music forms. Whether it be Chuck Berry, The Beatles, ABBA, Bee Gees, Michael Jackson, pop music and rock have had an inexorable bond. However, this may have changed a bit since the 1980s, when pop began to focus more exclusively on electronic synthesizers and less on live drums and guitars, technology taking it in directions never before possible. Rock, on the other hand, continued steeped in traditional values. Attempts for one side to take cues from the other have never quite yielded much in the way of a synergistic combination of the two for a very long time, usually with one element feeling tacked-on to the other, like a ripping guitar solo in the middle of a Backstreet Boys song or an electronic beat in the middle of a Nickelback tune.
But then, in 2012, Las Vegas band Imagine Dragons' debut full-length album "Night Visions" hit shelves, and the band had done something that had seemed impossible since digital technology conquered the pop music scene: effortlessly blended pop with rock. Here was a band that, despite protestations from rock purists, were rather decent instrumentalists, blending the sounds of their natural instruments with dubstep synths and hip-hop inspired beats, scoring a massive hit with the song "Radioactive". 2015's "Smoke + Mirrors" only solidified the band's blend of rock and pop, extending both genres' influences with some of their hardest-rocking tunes to date ("Friction" getting to near nu-metal levels of heaviness in live performances) and some of the band's catchiest pop tunes (like the funky "Shots").
The direction taken on "Evolve" is fairly similar, expanding the focus on the band's pop elements, and bringing in many 80s pop flavours. Sadly, there aren't really any rockers on the album like "I'm So Sorry" or "Friction" from their previous albums on "Evolve", and the focus is really more on 80s pop pastiches such as opening track "I Don't Know Why" and the absolutely slick, retro "I'll Make It Up to You". The band's trademark "arena rock" style it pioneered with tracks "Radioactive" continues on "Whatever It Takes" and "Mouth of the River". More minimalist pop arrangements come in on the album's first two major singles, "Believer" and "Thunder". Shades of Coldplay and U2 can be heard on "Walking the Wire" and "Rise Up". "Start Over" utilizes ethnic-sounding percussion to be a kind of millennial answer to Toto's classic "Africa". "Yesterday" stands as probably the strangest track on the album, with a stompy sort of start-stop arrangement and some off-kilter lead guitar sounds during the solo. "Dancing in the Dark" ends the album on a softer note, with mostly only synths and hip-hop beats with Dan Reynolds' vocals.
With the album's heavy emphasis on electronic pop instrumentation, it might be easy to criticize the apparent lack of performances from guitarist Wayne Sermon, bassist Ben McKee, and drummer Daniel Platzman, and truth be told, you'll have more luck picking out their individual performances from live performances of the band's songs, but on the record, there are actually some rather interesting moments from them. Platzman refers to the triplet drum beat in "Believer" as actually being somewhat difficult to execute precisely. Sermon's guitar playing is present throughout the album (and in a far more obvious way than Brad Delson's on the recent Linkin Park album, another comparable effort for a rock band to go pop), and while it's quite rare that he takes solos, he does get some good lead guitar moments on "Yesterday" and "I'll Make it Up to You", though he's still far from a shredder. McKee is not really as present in the mix as the other members, possibly owing to the amount of effects used on his bass, but his low end is something that would be missing without him.
The band's writing is pretty much on-point for pop music, and the band does feature a few outside songwriters, including Swedish duo Mattias Larsson and Robin Fredriksson on many tracks, though the band does utilize fewer than most pop artists out there today, and all four members are still credited on all songs. Despite having no fewer than six producers across the different tracks, with Mattias and Robin handling a majority of the tracks, there's a sort of sense of sonic cohesion throughout the record.
Lyrics — 7
Describing the album's lyrics as coming from "a place of arrival", the band's previous effort, "Smoke + Mirrors", seemed to delve a bit too deeply into Dan Reynolds' introspection, while "Evolve" seems to be more celebratory and inspirational in mood. This certainly plays into the chorus of the most recent single, "Whatever it Takes", which is about doing whatever it takes to achieve success: "Whatever it takes/'Cause I love the adrenaline in my veins/I do whatever it takes/'Cause I love how it feels when I break the chains/Whatever it takes/Yeah take me to the top/I'm ready for whatever it takes/'Cause I love the adrenaline in my veins/I do what it takes". And even while pain was a prominent theme on "Smoke + Mirrors", it has even found a reason to be celebrated on "Believer", where it is described as a tool to learn from and better one's self. "Rise Up" is a call to arms to do exactly that: "I would always open up the door/Always looking up at higher floors/Wanna see it all give me more (rise, rise up)/I was always up for making changes/Walking down the street meeting strangers/Flipping through my life turning pages (rise, rise up)". Sometimes, the lyrics are fairly well-written, but in a few cases, such as "Mouth of the River", seem a bit overly repetitive, with the song's title appearing in the lyrics at least twenty times in under four minutes.
Dan Reynolds' vocals are very much a product of the era, definitely a millenial version of Coldplay's Chris Martin or U2's Bono, with a higher raspy voice that has been utilized less and less with each album, but on certain tracks, he can still belt out quite well. He's certainly not a bad vocalist at all, but the production does sometimes ruin his performances, such as closing track "Dancing in the Dark", which I think is a very weak track overall, but especially so with the weak vocal production and extreme amounts of effects and pitch correction on the harmony backing vocals.
Overall Impression — 7
Among rock fans, having a soft spot for pop music is usually little more than a "guilty pleasure", but Imagine Dragons has somehow figured out a way to toe that line (in fact, I recently heard "Radioactive" on my hometown's local hard rock radio station) and appeal to both mainstream pop fans as well as rockers. On the band's third album, the band doesn't really shake up their sound all too much, delivering pretty much a similar formula to the band's first two records, though perhaps with a bit more of an emphasis on the pop elements. At times, the band can get a bit heavier than some of its contemporaries, and there's certainly more in terms of rock instrumentation and rock-style use of it, like guitar solos and distorted guitar power chords, than what you'll hear from other similar bands. With some bands even going as far as trying to imitate the style, such as Linkin Park on "One More Light", it does seem rather innovative that a rock band could achieve this much success on both the pop and rock fronts.
Luckily, too, this album, along with the rest of their discography, fares much better in terms of musical quality than other attempts to do the same. There's a certain mood to their music that makes it both epic and fun, and while there are certainly times where I'd rather hear something heavier and more technical, if there's any mainstream pop group out there right now that's actually worth a listen, I say it'd have to be Imagine Dragons. "Evolve" is a pretty decent record, pretty much the average for the band, and there's nothing that's really going to throw off any long-time fans of the band. Just some solid pop-rock tunes that are slickly executed. It's got some less-than-stellar moments, too, but what this album does right is still worth checking out, overall. But in my opinion, the album's best songs are "I Don't Know Why" and "I'll Make it Up to You", which are very catchy, '80s-themed tunes that definitely suit the retro feel of the album's awesome cover, and both feature some pretty nice synth and guitar work.