If Any Band Has Figured Out Rock's Future in the Mainstream, It's Imagine Dragons

Imagine Dragons
Eliot Lee Hazel

Imagine Dragons

Remember the silvery “future" of '50s and '60s pop-culture, and all its science-fictional prophecies for the 21st Century? Planet-hopping. Chrome jumpsuits. Wise-cracking robots. Considering the world — the real world — in which these tales set in the new millennium were conjured, rock n’ roll surely would have had its place atop the galactic charts. Hell, Lost in Space ran parallel with the Beatles’ best years (1965-68) and The Jetsons debuted in ‘62, along with The Rolling Stones.

Yet on Stardate: 2017 we’re still stuck on Earth, with RompHims, Siri and an almost unbelievable absence of pumping rock jams in the mainstream. The list of traditional rock bands to top the Hot 100 this century is a very short one, especially if you exclude Maroon 5 and Coldplay’s genre-straddling guitar-pop.

Amid this trudge into irrelevance, the form has seen one true outlier in Imagine Dragons. The innovative Las Vegas four-piece rose to fame within the doldrums in 2013, and despite its bombastic, rock-adaptive sound, the digital-friendly group has thrived on the pop charts. The band’s breakthrough single “Radioactive,” from their bold debut Night Visions (2012), still holds the record for most weeks spent in the Hot 100 (87), and the incendiary new single “Believer” has peaked at No. 13 on the chart, currently sitting at No. 15 — the only rock-edged tune within miles of the Top 10.

On Friday, June 23, the band drops its third LP in Evolve (KIDinaKORNER/ Interscope), their first since 2015's Billboard 200-topping Smoke + Mirrors, and one of the year's most anticipated rock sets. An eponymous arena tour kicks off in the fall and at the Billboard Music Awards last month, ID was anointed the show’s rock representative act, performing "Believer" and paying tribute to fallen grunge stalwart Chris Cornell. Such success has come by way of another “old future” staple -- the condensing of an unimaginable amount of material into a single package. Essentially, Imagine Dragons is the sonic equivalent of a day’s worth of food in pill form.

Within the band’s sound lies the pop crossover mantras of Coldplay and OneRepublic, furthered and fused with the daring electro-rock of Muse and The Killers, the harmonious arena-folk of Mumford and Sons and even a few throwback hip-hop beats. Listen closely to “Demons,” the band’s once inescapable pop-rock ballad that followed “Radioactive” to the Hot 100’s Top 10, and you’ll find the lightly treading boom-bap that moves the song steadily underneath. Moreover, the band has never shied from rap collaborations, from a stellar “Radioactive / m.A.A.d City” one-off with Kendrick Lamar at the 2014 Grammys, to “Sucker for Pain,” a partnership with Wiz Khalifa, Lil Wayne and Ty Dolla Sign for the Suicide Squad soundtrack last year that’s currently approaching 400 million listens on Spotify.    

By redrawing rock’s boundaries or erasing them completely, the Dragons have planted flags in pop, rock, EDM and rap territories, extending their reach far beyond returning groups like Foo Fighters, Green Day, or even Paramore, a pop-punk crossover success story in its own right (whose latest LP has nonetheless failed to yet produce a single that’s gotten anywhere near the Top 40). The embrace of so many styles at once seemed to open the path for fellow rock diversifiers Twenty One Pilots’ alt-breakthrough last year, and one could argue that Hozier’s haunting alt-gospel smash “Take Me To Church” doesn’t take off in 2014 without Imagine Dragons’ radio priming a year earlier.

Still, there’s more to the band’s magnetism; common themes of wistfulness and remorse — three fan favorites in “Amsterdam” (Night Visions), “I’m So Sorry” and “Shots” (Smoke + Mirrors) all dabble in the art of desperate apologies — readily appeal to indie sympathizers. While soaring pop singles “It’s Time” and “I Bet My Life” are easy listens, there’s real darkness in lyrics like the telling "Polaroid" hook, “Love is a Polaroid / better in picture / but can never fill the void.” With that undercurrent, brooding 20-somethings can readily worship The Decemberists or Bright Eyes and still accompany their little brothers to an Imagine Dragons concert.

To that end, the band has also found its way as an addicting stage act, where tremors of percussion and frontman Dan Reynolds' shivering howls erase any idea that the group can’t recreate its digitally infused jams live. On the band’s last tour, following Smoke + Mirrors, the explosive everyone-gets-a-drum aesthetic for “Radioactive” was more akin to Arcade Fire’s commitment to full-band enterprise than Maroon 5’s recent roadshows.  

Time will tell where Evolve takes Imagine Dragons; the intensity of the band’s hot single “Believer” surely fit its minor-key mold (with a cool 250 million Spotify listens already) but the second track released in “Thunder” relies on a squeaky dance-inspired sample for its hook, and the latest song “Walking the Wire” may be the band’s most overtly pleasing pop anthem to date, produced by the Swedish songwriting duo Mattman and Robin (Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez, Britney Spears). The album is easily the band’s least rock-centric project to date, and has the potential to take them further than they’ve ever gone.

So where does that leave rock en masse? Likely down in the fractured in-betweens for now, with most groups accepting the limitations of a mainstream structure that has seemingly all but closed its doors to simple guitars-bass-and-drums outfits. But a few acts will almost certainly attempt to recreate the Nevada band’s prowess, to weave a little of every popular trend into their sound, with rock muscle remaining as its consistent backbone.  

Because Imagine Dragons is proof: Rock truly can survive in the space-y future — as long as it doesn’t treat every other genre as alien.