Since the explosion of “Radioactive” in 2012, pop-rocktronica band Imagine Dragons has been America’s excitement wallpaper. They’re the signifier of phoenix-rinsing triumph in Hunger Games, Transformers, DC universe and Angry Birds films; in commercials for video games, headphones and cars; for soccer, football, rugby and Wrestlemania. Their fourth album, Origins, was just released and it already has one song tapped as ESPN’s “college football season anthem” (“Natural”) and another included on Ralph Breaks the Internet (“Zero”).
As a sound and signifier, Imagine Dragons are laudably, powerfully modern: a mix of the bombast beloved in Canadian indie rock, blasts of contemporary EDM (often courtesy of Eminem/Dr. Dre producer Alex Da Kid), and the majestic stomp of marching band percussion. They’ve managed to thrive in the genre-agnostic, post-everything pop sphere without doing anything too obnoxious like interpolating “Heart and Soul” (Train), sampling The Munsters theme (Fall Out Boy) or unnecessarily cramming in a clashing Cardi B verse (Maroon 5). Bravado vocalist Dan Reynolds sings “Fill my cup with endless ambition/And paint this town with my very own vision” in “Machine,” and you could make a very strong case that Imagine Dragons have accomplished ubiquity in an uncompromising way. They’re groomed but not too flashy. They pinball between genres but aren’t really trend-hoppers –save that terrible Kendrick Lamar collab and “Cool Out” which seems like it’s begging for a Marshmello remix. “I’ve been wondering/When you gonna see I’m not for sale/I’ve been questioning/When you gonna see I’m not a part of your machine.”
Unfortunately Imagine Dragons’ actual vision is one that is milquetoast, formulaic, nearly anonymous, free of any real lyrical insight. An Imagine Dragons song is almost like a science: a half-rappy verse, a disjunctive Dirty Projectors-ish musical trick or two and an absolutely explosive chorus. Origins is no exception, full Rocky-montage fist-pumpers (“Natural”‘s chorus: You’re a natural/A beating heart of stone/You gotta be so cold/To make it in this world”), break-up weepers (“Stuck on You”‘s chorus: “Time goes by and still I’m stuck on you-ooh-ooh, you-ooh-ooh”) and vague rebellion (“Digital”‘s chorus: “We are, we are the face of the future/We are, we are the digital heartbeat”). For the most part, Imagine Dragons’ best and smartest music – think the snap-boom-rumble of mega-hit “Believer” or the hum-and-stutter of “Thunder” – comes when their patented style is a vessel for an adventurous producer.
To wit, Dragons producer Alex Da Kid gives “Machine” a Nine Inch Nails-style groove and “Digital” gets the breakbeat-metal work of the Spawn soundtrack. Jorgen Odegard gives “Bad Liar” the watery production of Animal Collective. In fact, Odegard’s floaty intros – the bamboo chimes and field recordings of “Boomerang”‘s first nine seconds and the swelling drone of “Bad Liar”‘s opening five seconds – may be the 14 most gorgeous seconds of ambient music you hear all year.
The one place where the Dragons themselves really shine is an outlier in their catalog: “Zero,” made for Ralph Breaks the Internet, is a giddy college rocker that does for the Cure, David Bowie and Jimmy Eat World what Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson did for Prince, Gap Band and Zapp. Masters of hook, clearly gifted in vocal performance, attuned to hip musical tweaks, Imagine Dragons could have been alt-rock heroes in another life.