Tuesday, February 17, 2015

album review: 'smoke + mirrors' by imagine dragons

So as many of you probably know, I listen to a fair bit of rock music - and since plenty of you probably follow Billboard BREAKDOWN, you're all probably aware that we don't get a lot of rock music on the charts anymore. It's been declining for years, really since the 90s, but ever since post-grunge had its last gasps, most of the rock that lands on the radio is indie-flavoured or is so gutless it'd have been laughed off the radio in the late-80s, when hair metal was at its most poppy. As of now, if I'm being charitable we might have eight rock songs out of a 100 on the charts right now, and some level, that makes me a little sad, especially considering it has been like this for a while.

So going back to 2012, when I heard 'It's Time' by relative unknown Imagine Dragons, I didn't care it was only on the charts thanks to Glee and that the production was a little colourless, it was an indie rock song that landed on the Hot 100, I took what I could get. 'It's Time' landed on my 2012 best list, and the massive follow-up 'Radioactive' landed on my list in 2013. I'm not going to say that either song is fantastic, and I would have preferred to hear Queens Of The Stone Age on the radio than them, but again, there weren't many other options. But I was more curious about the band so I did pick up their debut album Night Visions, and for the most part I liked it. Lead singer Dan Reynolds had presence and power that reminded me a lot of Bono in a good way, the lyrics were reasonably solid albeit a little basic and overly broad, and the anthemic quality of many of their tracks did stick with me.

But let's be honest, that album has not aged well, mostly thanks to the monochromatic production courtesy of hip-hop producer Alex da Kid - many of the guitars were crushingly dreary, the percussion was over-emphasized, and the fact that the album was a composite of three different EPs and a few scattered songs really works against it. In other words, I was definitely curious where the band was going with their sophomore record Smoke & Mirrors, half because the band said they were going in more of a rock direction and the singles seem to be reflecting that. But then again, it's also getting produced by Alex da Kid, who I've never really been impressed with as a whole. So what did Imagine Dragons deliver?

Honestly - and I hate having to say this - not much. If Night Visions was the album that was intended to establish and cement Imagine Dragons as a rock band, Smoke + Mirrors does the exact opposite, showing a band flying off in a half-dozen different directions in order to capture a workable rock sound that might be distinct. And as such, the record is something of a disjointed, confused mess - which might have been the point and could be redeemed if the individual songs were strong enough.  Unfortunately, Smoke + Mirrors just turns out to be underwhelming across the board. Not a bad album by any stretch, but definitely only decent at best.

So how did this happen? Well, you need to start with the instrumentation and production, the former of which was supposedly trying to go in more of a rock direction in comparison to the stiffer hip-hop-inspired beats. And I won't deny there are points where Imagine Dragons does kick in the guitars and start to build to a decent groove or attempts to mimic the riffs and melodies of other arena rock acts like Muse or U2 or Coldplay. And hell, when this album does build a bit of melodic propulsion, it can have some strong moments - the guitar flutter of 'Shots' that's very reminiscent of U2, the shift-up at the end of 'I'm So Sorry' from the fuzz-saturated crunch of the beat and stuttering riff into a groove that feels interpolated from the guitar solo from Muse's 'Knights Of Cydonia', the twinkling xylophone melody of 'Polaroid', the Asian-inspired plucked riff that transitions into probably the heaviest groove on the album on 'Friction' that would have been awesome if it wasn't for what sounds like a squawking harmonica running through it, the hazy, airy melodies of 'It Comes Back To You' and the fuzzier 'Hopeless Opus', the interweaving horn melodies on 'The Fall' and great crescendo on the back half, and the almost acoustic folk influences on 'Trouble'. Hell, there are a lot of good melodic ideas here.

But almost as I expected, we run smack into the biggest problem of this album right out of the gate - the production. Not only does Alex da Kid's production mute any actual crackle or fire that comes from the guitar tones, it also is responsible for cranking the percussion significantly higher than it should and adding beats that feel way too stiff and clunky to fit with any sort of melodic groove. 'Gold' is a fine example - the clanking beat with handclaps, choppy sampled backing vocals, lumpy bass texture, all of it is much more prominent than any sort of guitar melody which sounds like its fighting to be heard where the most melody I remember from that song is from a whistle. It goes to my constant point about placing melody to the forefront and using percussion as support instead of the other way around - people remember melodic hooks beyond what is carried in the vocal line, and placing the rattling, clanking, entirely too stiff and inorganic drum machines and effects to the forefront just causes many of these songs to run together. What's worse is that the constant stuttering of these beats feels designed to cripple the momentum of this momentum of the grooves - this was a problem on Night Visions as well, but at least with songs like 'Bleeding Out' the guitar feedback built into a wall to barrel the song forward. With the choice of thinner guitar tones, we rarely ever get that level of edge or heaviness, instead reminding me a lot more of late-period Coldplay than anything else.

And Dan Reynolds' vocals don't help. Putting aside that Alex da Kid rarely places them as closely to the front of the mix as he should or blankets them in a fuzz in an attempt to make them sound more visceral and ends up feeling like a copout for real visceral power, Reynolds is nowhere near as impressive here. I'm reminded a lot of the shift U2 made in the 90s from the potent soaring howls of the 80s to more falsetto. And that could work if Reynolds was looking to convey more sharp-edged confidence and presence in his delivery - but instead he ends off coming across more like Chris Martin, and it's not a good feel for him because it ends up muting some of the more potent drama of these tracks.

Granted, that might have been part of the point, which takes us to the lyrics. And look, I'll repeat what I said back when I reviewed Ghost Stories by Coldplay: you can go broad for this sort of lyricism if you have the raw power to back it up. And to be blunt, Imagine Dragons don't really have that on this album. Instead of rock star swagger or angst or anything that suggests that sort of potency, the main emotions carried through the lyrics are insecurity, uncertainty, trying find the next step on which to go - in other words, they still haven't found what they're looking for. And while the framing of this record doesn't shy away from self-flagellation, showing just how confused and frustrated they are - which on some level does fit the haphazard fusion of styles and sounds - at points it feels a little overwrought and not really supported by the presentation. The prime example is 'I Bet My Life', where Reynolds tries to reestablish his relationship with his parents after treating them badly - and yet there are still lyrics reeking of condescension in the second verse and bridge that don't give them any reason to trust him. But if this album manages to come to a conclusion of where the band wants to go, I do appreciate that it's more towards art over artifice and they're willing to take the fall for it and just enjoy the ride as they long as they can. In fact, the more I think about it, the songwriting on both a technical and thematic level really does save this album from being a lot worse, because in capturing that frustration and confusion, the writing does work even if the delivery doesn't nearly as well.

So in the end, Smoke + Mirrors is a transitional sophomore slump, but given that Imagine Dragons seemed to have an excess of ideas of where to go, it's not exactly surprising. As I said, there are a lot of moments I liked, but it's mostly just moments, nothing that actually materializes into songs that really grip me without unfortunate qualifications, mostly in the production. I can see this album playing well in an arena without the need for stiffer studio production, which I guess is part of the point, but as it is here, I'm giving this record a 6/10 and only a recommendation to fans of the band. I will say that this record does give me a little hope that Imagine Dragons might choose to go for a more experimental and interesting direction on later records - it's just a shame they had to spend this one making up their mind and figuring it out.

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