Could anyone design a band more impervious to criticism than Imagine Dragons? Formed at Utah’s Brigham Young University and graduating to become Las Vegas, and then global, sweethearts, the group combines heartland earnestness with showbiz sheen at such a shameless pitch it’s almost innovative. Their sound is a ruthlessly competent concoction of styles: Coldplay-replay mellow melodies, Mumford-y hey-hos, EDM-inflected bass or beats, guitars courtesy of U2, filtered through alt-rock precursors such as Vegas’s own Killers. Finally, add some novelty effects — whistling, mandolins, anything — and wallops on Arcade Fire floor drums whenever they need to refocus the listener’s attention (which is often).
The band’s name sums up its ethos — declaring a stout belief in creative vision, but applying it to a stock “epic” image, as if to say: “Imagine, you know, big imaginary stuff.” This knack for radiating ambition, but not for anything in particular, renders ID ideal for TV, movie and ad synchs, including a Target-sponsored $8 million live broadcast in the middle of this year’s Grammys.
One could go on in this vein, and many critics have. But none of that jeering will block Imagine Dragons’ second album, Smoke + Mirrors, from scoring a slew of hits, just as 2012’s blockbuster Night Visions did. And in many ways it will earn them. Five Seconds of Summer and Justin Bieber treat the history of power pop and R&B, respectively, as a vast vault of R&D for reliably ingratiating moves; Imagine Dragons does the same with a wider palette, with bits of dance, classic rock and even Nashville. Note “I’m So Sorry,” which breaks up Kid Rock country-rock with a wispy Snow Patrol-ling bridge, or the South Asian, “Get Yr Freak On“-style plucks on “Friction.” The band’s skillful cherry-picking will make fans of teen-pop listeners ready to get more sophisticated, as well as older ears looking to settle down. It’s not as if there are so many dazzlingly original bands among their current modern-rock-format competition.
But the bombast of Night Visions hits like “Radioactive” has been tamped down. “Shots” and “I Bet My Life” — with a chorus that resembles The Kinks‘ “Days” — might convince skeptics that frontman Dan Reynolds’ voice can have charm when it’s used lightly (or at least when he’s not affecting an irksome calypso cadence, as on “Polaroid”). The intermittent restraint reflects themes that are less imaginary and dragon-y than before. In interviews, Reynolds has said he struggled with depression as the band’s career took off. Smoke + Mirrors begins with the words “I’m sorry for… everything I’ve done,” and the regrets carry on through other tracks, including “It Comes Back to You,” a song for his wife that refers to “things… I think I learned in therapy.”
The serious moments are often swamped by the group’s anthemic-compulsive disorder, but they’re still a relief from ID’s usual grandiosity. Smoke + Mirrors may seem too recycled and belabored to entice the unconverted, but the hints of hidden depths are a pleasant surprise. Many doubted Imagine Dragons even had hidden shallows.
This story will appear in the Feb. 28 issue of Billboard.