Smoke + Mirrors review by Imagine Dragons

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  • Released: Feb 17, 2015
  • Sound: 5
  • Lyrics: 4
  • Overall Impression: 4
  • Reviewer's score: 4.3 Poor
  • Users' score: 4.7 (53 votes)
Imagine Dragons: Smoke + Mirrors
5

Sound — 5
While everyone's likely sick of the viral term "arena rock" at this point, it's interesting to see how it evolved into the phenomenon it is now. Originally just a colloquial measurement of a band's success, it could be as much a compliment ("that band's so big, they're selling out arenas!") as it could be an epithet ("man, that band totally sold out!"). But whether one uses the term genuinely or subversively, one thing remained irrefutable: a band had to put in years of work to get to that level - it was a sign of recognized seniority.

Now, mostly due to "arena rock" being a shorthand - albeit accurate - term to describe the amalgam of sound characteristics found in today's pop rock, freshman-grade bands have equipped that sound as an express-route to big rock stardom, much akin to using the double flute trick to quickly get to the final world in "Super Mario Bros. 3." But results are results, and Imagine Dragons are a key example of said strategy. Originally just a run-of-the-mill rock band in Las Vegas, they swam in a small pond of a career, consisting of some modest EPs and local performing - but once they signed with Interscope in 2011, that's when everything changed. Pulling out all the production stops, Imagine Dragons went full arena rock on their debut album, "Night Visions," which, amongst other successful singles, contained the dubstep-rock vanguard "Radioactive," one of the most ubiquitous songs of 2013, and the primary reason Imagine Dragons ascended into the stratosphere of popularity on such short notice. 

But to be the band that strives towards sounding like the flavor of the month is a niche as insecure as the ever-shifting trends in music - not to mention that there's no characteristic more insecure than trying to get *everybody* to like you. In their sophomore album, "Smoke + Mirrors," Imagine Dragons are even more dogged in this goal, brandishing several different pop music flavors with the "clap and sing along" grandeur intended to rouse crowds of thousands, and the journey through those styles is jarring: "Shots" opens the album with a friendly nu-disco style - powered by a medley of analog synths and high-pitched tremolo - only to be followed by the off-kilter triplet rhythm of the electronic rocker "Gold"; the blues rock song "I'm So Sorry" is a near-shameless pandering to all the Jack White/Black Keys fans that tuned to another station when the synthetic "Radioactive" came on, but is then followed by the gospel-fueled ballad "I Bet My Life." Not long after comes "Friction," which conjures an erratic pace of Eastern-style plucking melodies, sharp synth stabs and flighty staccato vocal delivery that takes a page from nu-metal. They bring it into indie folk territory with the acoustic-heavy singalong of "Trouble," but the "simple countryman" feel is soon snuffed by the quasi-polyrhythmic alt-rocker "Summer" (easily the most intriguing composition on the album).

So yes, "Smoke + Mirrors" stretches and contorts itself in questionable ways to touch numerous hot-button sounds, as if it's playing a game of audio Twister, but there is an underlying theme of sound throughout the majority of the album - and it's to sound like Coldplay. This is mainly accomplished by frontman Dan Reynolds, where his strong emulation of Chris Martin's vocal style acts as a sort of sonic adhesive to glue the album together in some sense, and fits of falsetto find a way into nearly every track (yes, even the rugged "I'm So Sorry"). But tracks like "Polaroid," "Dream," and "The Fall" in particular are full-on pastiches of Coldplay-style stadium serenades, from the muted guitar plucking lines to the slow-burning orchestral instrumentation.

Lyrics — 4
In the songs where Imagine Dragons flex different music styles, Reynolds' lyrics follow suit in the chameleonic characteristic, adapting according to the environment they're in; though they duly suffer from adhering to stylistic synchronicity to the point of self-parody. "Shots" twists a heartbroken tale into catchy and digestible lines in order not to infringe upon the danceable demeanor, "I'm So Sorry" is a "pick yourself up by the bootstraps" gruff uplifter, "Trouble" has Reynolds pretending to be a country boy that "prefer[s] the pay dirt," and with the very first line in "Friction" being "get down with the victim" delivered in a nu-metalish style, it's asking to sound contrived from Disturbed's "Down With the Sickness."

Whether these lyrical efforts to stick to other winning formulas are seen as shameless or dedicated (or both), Reynolds' go-to style of lyrics still rules the majority of the album, which, as seen in the majority of "Night Visions," is wrought with melancholic confessions. Occasionally, Reynolds hits a decent mark (like "love is a polaroid/better in picture, but never can fill the void" in "Polaroid"), but more frequently, he reduces his articulation to clichés (like "I'm a rolling freight train... I'm a lone red rover" in "Polaroid" or "mockingbirds and diamond rings/oh I have thought of greater things" in "It Comes Back to You"). The King Midas inspired "Gold" wins for having the richest (no pun intended) imagery, but it's hard to believe Reynolds' cautionary tale of the curse of wealth when he's fronting a band that's crystal clear about their conquest for commercial music dominance.

Overall Impression — 4
At face value, Imagine Dragons are an enigma, and "Smoke + Mirrors" takes some weird and unexpected turns. But despite still not having a concrete style, they know exactly what they're trying to accomplish: mass appeal. Like a sample platter of appetizers, "Smoke + Mirrors" is a hodgepodge of trendy music tastes in finger-food portions. Like blues rock? Listen to "I'm So Sorry." Like indie folk? Listen to "Trouble." Like nu-disco? Listen to "Shots." Like gospel/soul ballads? Listen to "I Bet My Life." But their attempts, both wild and calculated, to capture as many different music fans as possible make "Smoke + Mirrors" nothing more than an aggregate of what sounds popular in this moment. And like trends that will come and go, "Smoke + Mirrors" sets itself up to be equally obsolete after the bouquet of sound trends it wields inevitably wilts away.

61 comments sorted by best / new / date

    HugoPan
    So... I'm the only one here who likes the work of these guys? anyone? Ok...
    ZPinkZeppelinS
    I think they get the most hate because they get nominated for rock awards and classified into that genre, and I know that you guys are gonna say, "No, we hate them because they suck and make shitty music." But, honestly there are much more awful artists today than them.
    BassFishin
    It's okay that you do. Everyone gets their own opinion. That being said...man do I hate them.
    kasrafallen
    me too.i loved night vision. don't bother the hatred here. #ultimateprogressivemetal
    Ro-may-o
    I kinda like them too, though in my modest opinion I Bet my Life is a god-awful song.
    JSmith38
    I like them a lot too. They put on a hell of a live show. You are not alone, friend.
    Eissari
    This band should not exist. Absolutelely horrible super soft modern pop that some people call rock for some unknown reason. Just Bad..
    RockingCookie
    Who are you to tell which band can and which band can't excist? You do realize there is actually a chance that some guys just got together and made music they like, got lucky, and became a very fast growing band in popularity? Agreed it's not rock, but who cares what people label it? The current majority of people like their music. I rather have a band like Imagine Dragons get alot of radio time (which at least has some rock influences) than a lot of other crap like Nicki Minaj and Kanye West. And you propably haven't even listened to their latest album, which has in my opinion quite a few expiremental cool tracks on there, they're just doing their thing...
    m4ss3 m/
    Ikr, and I still can't get over the fact how bad the kick drum in the song "Demons" sound.
    fokkertism
    I've also heard the term ,,rock" applied to the band Fun as well. Rock? Ha! They wouldn't know rock if it hit them in the face!
    capcocoapig
    They have produced rock songs before. Trust me... and they also like to rock out during live shows. I can tell the difference between pop and rock btw. The song Shots, I Bet My Life, those are pop. Without a doubt. But they can still make rock...
    marshmellowrain
    In this entire universe, where does your opinion matter? Until making music and are as big as any of the top singers/artists you have no right to say they shouldn't exist. You as a person shouldn't exist. I personally don't understand how people can call themselves musicians and not respect different types of music, OR BEING BUTTHURT BECAUSE ITS CONSIDERED POP ROCK OR ALTERNATIVE ROCK. Good thing it's not considered ROCK alone.
    TaV0
    "Good thing it's not considererd ROCK alone" Sh¡t rock sounds like an appropiate combination of words.
    bunnyh0pz
    I don't like Imagine Dragons either, but I can't help but feel this was a bit biased. If a band that was well respected on this site covered a bunch a genres on one album, they'd be praised for their diversity. But since UG doesn't favor them, they're just trying to make everyone like them?
    alexrigotti
    that's not the problem, the problem is that the genres are sort of jarring and they don't blend in. i would personally say the same thing for any band that did this, well respected or not
    mjmelani
    It's hard to knock down success (as Imagine Dragons is). The fact is they are very good, and the reason they are selling records and selling out shows is they right good songs. Are they great songs is a question of how they relate to any individual. The singer sings his butt off, and the band is very percussive. The music business is very tough, and I congratulate them for giving it their best.
    Tarsplitter
    Night Visions wasn't bad. There was a lot of filler but at least the singles were quite listenable. This album is really bad though. Nothing memorable about it. It's funny that the UG community's biggest problem with them is that some people call them a rock band...
    luciferiad
    if your "album" consists of a couple "listenable" singles and a bunch of filler, you have failed in the making of that album. But that's how people get famous now.
    ridinglightning
    I enjoy their music... as pop music. It shouldn't be lumped with rock music. If they want to lump it with rock music, then it shall be judged as such. If they lump it with pop, it's actually decent pop music. Well, at least a lot better than a lot of other pop. Take the Fifty Shades of Grey analogy. It's porn. It wants to be judged as a movie. Most adult films are judged as porn, but the one that got a theatrical release will not be lumped with other porn. So, it's bad in one respect but at least halfway decent in another.
    Northernmight
    Meh. Sounds dull to me. It's obvious that this is not "their" music. You can kinda-sorta hear when something is a "band" song, or a studio song. I mean, sure, it might be the worst SOUNDING music out there. But in terms of substance, it might as well be Minaj. That's why people dislike them. this is to art what the fart joke is to comedy or the jump-scare is to horror.
    luciferiad
    The first rule of pop music is pander to the lowest common denominator. it's a successful formula, but there's something much more loathsome about a group that tries to hedge their bet like this.
    fajaquackquack
    Do you guys think if Djent music had claps and stomps in odd time signatures, it would get played on the radio???? I think thats all it takes to get people to like you. Claps, stomps, and harmonies.
    dualjcm5150
    UG elitists on the loose. Yeah, it's true they aren't exactly a rock band, but their music is actually pretty nice, if you listen to it while not being a biased djentfaggot.
    voodrew
    Imagine dragons are a great band. I think a lot of people hold them to an absurd standard because of their success. They write good songs that powerful and fun to listen. Bad Lyrics? sell outs? Please stop. Rockers should embrace successful rock bands and more will follow.
    BuckinFuffalo
    They only have a few songs I don't mind, but I still enjoy having their first album on while I'm studying/doing work.
    scottishmob
    I saw them live a few years ago at Lolapalooza and had never heard of them before. My friend wanted to see them (we are no longer friends anymore. I thought at first it wasn't related but the more I think about it...). Anyway, nearly threw up. They're like the second coming of Creed. I even wrote a short story about how disingenuous the whole thing was. Disgusting.
    Dregen
    haven't listened to this yet. i've listened to their first album and dig some of the songs a lot (It's Time, Radioactive, Amsterdam), even though the rest of it is pretty much filler. i feel this will probably be the same way. also, if you haven't watched these guys play Radioactive on Letterman you're missing out. really good performance.
    fenderdude2376
    From the songs I've heard, they blow lyrically. Simply writing to take advantage of the unintelligent teens of today.
    Ristifer29
    Really not a fan of this band, but Reynolds needs to stay away from his wife's band too. Nico Vega is a pretty cool band, and I don't like his songwriting contributions to their latest album very much either. Just leave them be.
    bastillefreak
    Ok so reading these comments made me really mad. Uninspiring? Bad? Overrated? Unoriginal? They souldn't exist? They make you throw up? Wow. Did you know that this band is my life. No you don't get it, they ARE MY LIFE. They are the most original band I know, because of their "new" and different sound. They are truly inspiring. And if you don't understand the true meaning of their lyrics, then I pity you. This band has given me so much. Also, no they're not called a rock band. They're called an ALTERNATIVE rock band. Because it's not 100% rock. It's different. It's better. Yeah sure you can have your opinions but you don't understand. You don't.
    JSmith38
    While I agree ID are good, they shouldn't be your life. And original sound? They use synth and other 80's rock shit that's been done before just not in the past 20 years because it got stale and old. Sure they have made it their own but its not really all that new.
    marshmellowrain
    i agree, the comments about imagine dragons are completely unnecessary. half of paramores new songs are considered rock NOT ALTERNATIVE ROCK but rock, and the sound way more pop than imagine dragons. imagine dragons is a different type of music, hardly to be classified as rock, i don't think it goes under alternative rock either but definitely not pop. It's crazy that I can be into the same bands as almost everyone on this thread and love imagine dragons but everyone is shit to them basically because they're on the billoard top 100. until the commenter reaches a point as high as them, i'd like to see them bring them down
    JSmith38
    That's how it is here. I listen to nearly all metal but sometimes it's nice to have bands like Imagine Dragons that (despite the popular opinion here) make good music. This new album is not nearly as good as the first and feels like the label rushed them out to make a new record but it still isn't worse than say..Nickelback or Kid Rock.
    PauloPM
    they aren't 100%, 50%, 25%, 10% Rock... They aren´t Rock... Do you even know what Rock is???
    imspazzen
    I love pop but those two songs have painfully bland hooks. Like pretty much any other band that makes it on the Billboard Hot 100, it just sounds like a watered down Modest Mouse song with the life sucked out of it. Booo
    voodrew
    Imagine dragons are a great band. I think a lot of people hold them to an absurd standard because of their success. They write good songs that powerful and fun to listen. Bad Lyrics? sell outs? Please stop. Rockers should embrace successful rock bands and more will follow.
    sovaso
    Your pint would be valid if: 1.Imagine Dragons were a good band. 2.They wrote good songs that are powerful and fun to listen to. 3.They had good lyrics. 4. Imagine Dragons were a rock band.
    Jazzmandtk
    Wow this was a very well written review. I agree with the general UG sentiment on this band: not a fan. It's a shame how watered down they've already become