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.