Smoke + Mirrors
Let’s give Imagine Dragons credit where it’s due. On their multiplatinum 2012 debut, Night Visions, the Las Vegas act found a way to reheat old-fashioned arena-rock catharsis for the segmented pop world of the 2010s — fusing Coldplay’s heart-hugging balladry, Arcade Fire’s darkly heroic surge, neon Killers synths and elements of hip-hop, folk and EDM into something new. Their biggest hit, “Radioactive,” was a dour moaner that sounded like Chris Martin trying to write an Eminem ballad about the end of the world. In concert, they hammered away at massive drums, an annoying theatrical gambit that might be a portent of where mainstream “rock” is heading. Every time a Dragon bangs a floor tom, a member of Nickelback sheds a tear.
But being mildly inventive isn’t the same as being good, and Imagine Dragons hone all that eclectic energy into dreary anthems that aren’t much better than the flaming turds Creed used to light up on our collective doorstep back in the Nineties. Smoke + Mirrors builds on its predecessor’s multifaceted bombast. Like Night Visions, it’s overseen by producer Alex Da Kid, who usually works with stars like Rihanna and Nicki Minaj. Throughout the album, the genre mash-ups come fast and furious — from the New Wave-tinged dance-rock of “Shots” to “Friction,” a whirl of Eastern strings, art-metal yammering, R&B Auto-Tune and electronic knock-hockey. There are moments of lithe prettiness like “Summer” and descents into desolation like the goth slog “Dream.” There’s even straight-up rock on the Black Keys-indebted garage-blues grinder “I’m So Sorry.”
All this finds a focal point in singer Dan Reynolds, a 27-year-old family man with a sad, stout heart the size of Utah. Success hasn’t done much to pick up his afflicted mood. “Who can you trust when everything you touch turns to gold?” he sings over the glowering synths and grim drums of “Gold,” sounding a little like Drake’s pale shadow. “It Comes Back to You” has a pleasantly skipping tune with a Talking Heads guitar line that suggests sunny vibes — but nope: Instead he finds himself pondering “all the things that I could be/I think I learned in therapy.”
Reynolds’ background as a practicing Mormon plays a big role in his music. He never goes Full Jesus, but spiritual overtones come through all over the place as he lunges through the darkness in search of redemption. On the title track, Edge-y guitars shimmer and strings slam as he entreats “I wanna believe” to an unspecified “dream-maker/life-taker.”
The combination of self-pity, grandiosity and leaden spirituality can get trying. And all those attempts at musical worldliness can feel like stylistic tourism. “I’ve told a million lies, but now I’ll tell a single truth,” Reynolds sings on “I Bet My Life,” a gospel-sampling, foot-stomping anthem that serves as the album’s 72-ounce Big Gulp of arms-aloft hope-folk. He wants so badly to travel the righteous path, and his soul may one day bask in the glow of eternal wisdom. But his music has a long way to go.