The following review is in part a response to the original reviews of
Smoke + Mirrors which were written by Michael and Tucker. This review
was written by Zach Hagenbucher, friend of the site and host of our
Double Jump Podcast. For the most part, please consider it a 3rd opinion
on equal footing with the first 2; an argument for the album, rather than
an argument against our responses to the album.
In a Top 40 landscape dominated by Taylor, Iggy, Ed, Nicki, Katy, Pitbull, and so many other interchangeable personalities and hooks, Imagine Dragons stood out to me immediately. Night Visions rode the border of being over-produced, and it suffered from a lack of finesse in its final mixing. But creatively, it brought something different to the pop mainstream that caught fire. Imagine Dragons were winning awards for their 2012 album – in 2014. Singles like “Radioactive” and “Demons” seemed to be immune to the syndrome of being overplayed, and the band bucked every trend that stood against them.
It would have been easy to capitalize on this success. Much like the Fall Out Boys and the Daughtrys and, yes, the Ed Sheerans of the industry, Imagine Dragons could have churned out a follow-up that bent to the will of “what sells in 2015.” To be honest, that’s what I expected them to do. As much as I didn’t want them to, it would have been very easy to see the dollar signs and target the lowest common denominator. But, again, Imagine Dragons bucked the trend, and chose to produce an album almost completely different in tone and style from their first.
There’s this thing in art called influence. Just about every group to come after the legends of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s has artists that they openly admit to being inspired and influenced by. Music is a beautiful, vast creative medium, but there are styles and tendencies that are going to be rehashed in a way because the industry will always have a need for new blood and new content. Smoke + Mirrors may have a familiar sound, but it’s still a welcome diversion from everything else that the Top 40 scene has to offer right now, and an effort that should be applauded.
“Shots” is a beautiful oxymoron, an uplifting melody contrasted by a pretty depressing lament of frontman Dan Reynolds, setting up the tone of the rest of the album very well. This album comes from a darker place than Night Visions, not exactly the stuff of Top 40 success, and I appreciate that. One of the standouts on the album for me is “Friction,” where the harder edge that I’ve known this group is capable of finally comes to light, with a very satisfying payoff from the building pressure of the track. “It Comes Back To You” is another highlight, a great background tune for a walk or other activity on a nice day with a back-to-basics approach I didn’t expect. Thirdly, “Summer,” a smooth ride with a great bass groove that I’d love to hear live.
In nearly every track on Smoke + Mirrors, I found something that spoke to me, whether it was the scornful metaphor of “Polaroid” (“Love is a polaroid, better in pictures, never can fill the void”) or the arena rock riff that got my foot stomping on “I’m So Sorry.” Overall, the album isn’t lyrically impressive, but there’s certainly worse out there, and it’s made up for by the instrumental choices that were made. The “ocean of sound” created here has me coming back to it nearly every day.
If you want to accuse Imagine Dragons of not being “original” enough, then go ahead. The taste of Coldplay and U2 is pretty strong, but that’s a formula I don’t blame them for using. Imagine Dragons has avoided the sophomore slump by bucking the trend and producing a unique work that stands next to Night Visions instead of just being the follow up or the cash in, and if this band winds up inspiring a kid to check out the bands that preceded them as kings of “pop rock,” then more power to them. Calling Imagine Dragons a Top 40 group completely erases what they’re out to accomplish. I don’t think they care if they’re the kings of “pop rock,” they just want to do their thing, and that’s an ideal that I support.