Heading the trifecta of indie bands that broke big in 2013 (joined of course by Bastille and The 1975), it was Imagine Dragons who scored the wildest success of the bunch thanks to the clutch of anthems included on their grandiose debut ‘Night Visions’.
Songs as immediate and enormous-sounding as “Radioactive” and “Demons” were never not going to attract the attention of media moguls who realised that here was a group middle-of-the-road enough to muscle into daytime playlists but ‘alternative’ enough to keep a shroud of indie cool about them. Its big hitters aside, ‘Night Visions’ was a patchy debut that hid some of the group’s naiveties behind intricate production techniques and unusual genre mashups. It managed to feel as if it were both trying to be too clever and lacking in a true visionary to tease the best out of the songs. This time around there are no such problems, quite possibly thanks to the decision to let producer Alex Da Kid (who was a part of the making of both “Radioactive” and “Demons”) leave his mark on the whole body of work. The sonic makeup of those songs is what set them apart from other chorus-oriented rock, and here it is key to taking Imagine Dragons to the next level of musical quality.
‘Smoke + Mirrors’ is the perfect album for the arenas the band will more likely than not be filling on their upcoming tour dates. The best moments of its predecessor have been built upon perfectly, the result a far better overall product. Second track “Gold” is the initial point at which this is clear, a near hip-hop swagger carrying an understated but overachieving chorus perfectly, its whistling hook bedded into a carefully woven sonic texture. The futuristic production blanket works wonders on plaintive loud-quiet ballad ‘Dream’ and the hazy title track, the blasts of noise on the latter transforming it from a typical radio playlist-filler into something far more intriguing. The electronics do once again overshadow the instrumentation of the band themselves, but guitarist Wayne Sermon does well to make his voice heard with a brace of 80s stadium rock solos. Vocals from Dan Reynolds move between intensity and fragility very well, and though his falsetto is occasionally overused (“Shots”) he fills the choruses out nicely.
More rock-minded listeners who had previously written off Imagine Dragons may well have their minds changed here – “I’m So Sorry” has the swagger of classic blues-rock and the sonic heft to boot, but it’s real album highlight “Friction” that most impresses. Elastic middle-eastern melodies sit atop a rough, tense hard rock bed that rises and falls in all the right moments, building to a strikingly heavy (for this genre) conclusion. On the other hand, there are also the more folk-influenced passages, and these are more hit and miss. “I Bet My Life” beats Mumford & Sons at their own anthemic game, but “Trouble” and “It Comes Back to You” are more hokey and less enjoyable. Overlong closer “The Fall” suffers from similar issues and a lack of emotional presence for a final song, and is overshadowed by the saccharine but catchy “Hopeless Opus”, a song again taken from good to great by the additional sounds incorporated.
If Imagine Dragons hadn’t quite justified the enormous hype surrounding them when they first got catapulted into the spotlight, in ‘Smoke + Mirrors’ they finally have the material to back up the hyperbole. While its successes are as much down to the sounds weaved into the songs than the songs themselves, the band’s big-chorus generating machine is continuing to work wonders and the music is far more memorable than last time around. They clearly sit on the pop end of the rock spectrum, but if Imagine Dragons are the stadium headliners of the future, there’ll be no complaints here.