Imagine Dragons’ multi-platinum debut, Night Visions, has been my go-to album for the past two years. Whether I need a motivational soundtrack to help me finish a particularly grueling essay or a musical inducement to assist my daily trek up Forum Hill, Imagine Dragons have been there to give me a musical kick up the backside, so to speak. So, as you can probably guess, I was first in line when it came to reviewing the band’s latest fare, Smoke & Mirrors.
After the gutsy, if somewhat overdramatic, guitar and drum extravaganza that was their first album (Radioactive anyone?) I was expecting another healthy dose of pop-rock from the dragons. Sadly however, the characteristic throbbing drum of their debut is all but extinct in Smoke & Mirrors, which has entirely sidestepped rock in favour of a more experimental techno style. Anyone looking for booming bass-lines, leave now.
That being said, the new album certainly isn’t all bad. Once you get over the initial shock of what feels like listening to an entirely different band (and listen to the album a few times) you begin to realise just how catchy some of the new tracks actually are.
The album’s first track, Shots, certainly lacks the show-stopper quality of Radioactive - the opening number of Night Visions. Yet it still manages to launch the album with an energy that makes you want to keep listening, and it sure is catchy. The upbeat tone, coupled with a strong, even bouncy, beat makes it the perfect backing track for a brisk walk. Next time you’re running late to a 9am in Peter Chalk, this is the song for you. So far, so good.
Next in the line up is Gold, a song that teeters on the edge of “experimental” and falls into the realm of downright weird. The ground-bass style introduction layers an eclectic range of sound effects – whistling, nonsensical mumbling and some sort of strange electronic gagging sound (I kid you not) – before launching into what, bizarre intro aside, is a surprisingly good song. Bear in mind, when I say “good”, I don’t mean critical acclamation good, I mean the catchy, overdramatic school of good that Imagine Dragons are so darn great at.
After a couple of slightly bland filler tracks, we have I Bet My Life, an uplifting, light-hearted nugget of fun, reminiscent of Night Visions’ On Top Of The World. This is a song you put on when dancing around in your room getting ready for a night out, or in my case, when motivating yourself to tidy said room so that there is adequate space for the aforementioned dancing and getting ready. While this song is nothing groundbreaking, it doesn’t try to be and, to be honest, it really doesn’t need to be.
From this joyful little number the album moves to Polaroid, a song which is, in a word, horrendous. Insipid, monotonous vocals laid over a backing that manages to be simultaneously obnoxious and twinkly (just listen to it and you’ll know exactly what I mean). Oh, and the lyrics are utterly dreadful. To quote one especially poetic verse:
I am the colour of boom, That’s never arriving, At you are the opera, Always on time and in tune.
The stuff of pure romance, I’m sure.
Moving swiftly on… The next song on the album, Friction, fares a little better. While the combination of excessively twangy guitar and zestful vocals comes off as slightly ridiculous, this is a song that you grow to love. That being said, I still chuckle to myself whenever this comes up on shuffle. It is so entirely overdramatic that it’s almost comical, but sometimes that’s just what you need, especially when the stresses of uni life are getting you down, and I have come to embrace the absurdity.
On a more positive note, I absolutely love Trouble. This mid-album gem is far more in the style of the dragons we know and love. It doesn’t try to do anything particularly edgy or clever, it just gives you more of the good old pop rock from the Night Visions heyday. If the whole album had been a bit more like this, it would have been a much better listen.
In the same vein, the album’s concluding number, Warriors, is an absolute corker. Here we finally see a return to the gutsy, boomy Radioactive-esque drum and guitar combo that works so well and that we love so much. Is it melodramatic? Absolutely. Will it win any awards? Probably not. Is it the way to end an album with panache? Hell yes.
All in all, Imagine Dragons should stick to what they do well. While this wasn’t an especially bad album, it wasn’t especially spectacular either, and the only really stand-out tracks were the ones that stuck to the style established in their first album. All the experimental techno-frills really just detract from what we actually want to hear which, for the record, is not electronically induced gagging (yes, I’m talking to you, Gold). Imagine Dragons would have had to produce something sensational to surpass the fabulousness of their debut album and sadly, they didn’t quite manage it.