For those who know me, this first review might come as a bit of a surprise. Do not be alarmed; I did it willingly. As mentioned previously, I will be alternating between American mainstream, international, and local acts. When it comes to American mainstream, it’s hard to find a band that is larger than Imagine Dragons. Their debut studio album, Night Visions, saw incredible success at 1.4 million albums sold. If you haven’t heard the single “Radioactive,” there’s a great chance you either live under a rock or are one of “those guys” who believe that television is beneath them.
Their follow up album, Smoke + Mirrors (which is read as “Smoke and Mirrors”, because who wants to spell the word “and” any more), has been a greatly anticipated album. For some, it is out of pure infatuation with Night Visions. For others, it’s to see if they will suffer from the sophomore slump, which has plagued many promising artists in the past. Everyone else is just tired of hearing “Demons” performed five different ways of terrible on American Idol.
One of the biggest complaints I hear of mainstream artists is that every album sounds the same as the last one. Considering the genre and producer, Alex Da Kid, the formula was there for this to be the case. However, I am happy to report the opposite. Where Night Visions had a balanced blend of hip-hop and rock elements, Smoke + Mirrors was more on the rock side. Night Visions relied heavily on auxiliary percussion to create its sound, while Smoke+ Mirrors was decidedly more guitar driven. Another surprising element is the arrangement choices. There were several moments that a song would change directions when least expected. This is a risk for some artists, but it’s worth the reward if executed well. Let’s go into further detail track by track. For the purposes of this review, and my sanity, I am ignoring the deluxe editions of the album and focusing on the original release.
Smoke and Mirrors
The album starts with an immediate change in direction from its predecessor. From the U2-inspired leads and falsetto backing vocals, it’s immediately apparent that we’re in for a more organic album that isn’t dominated by electronic samples. The chorus is catchy and easy for most to sing, which means we’ll probably hear it everywhere in a few months.
This one was a little difficult for me to review. On one hand, the slow but driving tempo and soulfully melodic hooks pulls the listener in to every word. On the other hand, it brings the momentum of the album down. I feel like this would have been better in the middle of the album when the listener has invested in the emotion of the album. The lyrics, inspired by the Midas touch, are quite thought provoking though.
Smoke and Mirrors
The album’s title track is a haunting one. Another down-tempo number, it questions one’s hopes, beliefs, and realities. Standing alone, the reflective nature will lead many to meditate on its meaning. The arrangement choices keep it interesting for the casual listener as well. The song is peaceful until it crashes into the chorus with a jarring drum fill. The bridge is what sets this song apart. All instruments drop out, leaving the near crying tone of Dan Reynolds’ voice to guide you through a wave of emotion. This is practically a perfect title track.
I’m So Sorry
I’m a stickler for song order in an album. It’s a minute detail for some, but it can make or break any album. They should have swapped this song with Gold. It’s slightly more up-tempo, but it’s also less emotionally weighted. The hooking guitar and bass line coupled with the energy of the vocals carry the song to a calm bridge that lets the song breath while delivering the meat of the message. This one left me pumped, amped, jacked, or whatever you want to call it. I expect to hear it at sporting events across the country.
I Bet My Life
The album’s lead single is also the first track where I felt like I was listening to the Imagine Dragons that the world already knows. The focus on the percussion was reminiscent of several songs from Night Visions. After four songs of a decidedly new direction, it was nice to hear something that sounded familiar.
I could not put my finger on it, but the melody of the chorus sounded very familiar to me. It felt like something I would hear at an Irish music festival; not a bad thing by any means. I am mostly Irish, after all. This is yet another song that will stay with you for a few days if you don’t listen to something else.
This song was the surprise of the album for me. Employing a Middle Eastern theme coupled with vocal lines that remind me of “Bad”-era Michael Jackson (I know I just aged myself terribly), this one grooves. Then there’s the ending. I know heavy. I know heavy very well. The ending is incredibly heavy. Not in the “they’re trying to be heavy but they’re not” kind of heavy but in the “we know how make your head bounce and it just did” kind of heavy.
It Comes Back to You
Bust out the margaritas and Mai Tai’s for this one. It’s as chill as it gets. It has some nice guitar work throughout.
The piano, while basic, is the primary hook of this song. It reinforces the title track’s message. The song neither added nor detracted from the album, but is nonetheless pretty.
The beginning of the track is a little busy for me in terms of conflicting rhythms. The melody of the chorus was a little corny as well. The album could have done without this one.
“Summer” is an enjoyable song for having in the background at parties. The groove is both fun and chill at the same time. I wouldn’t doubt if that was the intention of the song to begin with.
Easily the best title on the album, I love the use of Asian instrumentation as the main theme in the song. With the catchy chorus and old-school guitar solo, it easily fits the description of an anthem.
The longest song of the record by nearly two minutes, this highlights the band’s ability to write songs that are enjoyable outside of the standard three-minute radio limit. The best way to describe this track is flight. It takes off, soars, and lands in a breathtaking way. “The Fall” is an excellent finish to the album.
“Smoke and mirrors” is generally a term borrowed from magic, to imply that something is not as it seems. This is not the case for Imagine Dragons. They are what we thought: a group of talented musicians who don’t limit themselves to previous expectations. While not a perfect album, it is an entertaining and fresh direction for the band. I give Smoke + Mirrors 4 out of 5 eciov megaphones.