The sophomore album – that event that spells out make or break for an artist. Imagine Dragons has now reached that second album, following 2012’s blockbuster Night Visions, an album that kept rock music in the pop charts when few others could. Of course having crossover success brings harsh criticism. It brings a whole new batch of haters that need someone new to complain about. So when it comes time to make the followup, all of the pressure is on. However, the band didn’t just rush into a new album. They took their time with the songwriting and the production. They also kept their skills polished by recording a few soundtrack songs in the time that passed. Now that the new album is here, I think they’ve got something many of their fans will be happy with, while still being true to themselves.
I waited a couple weeks to review Smoke + Mirrors for a couple reasons. First, I wanted to let this music soak up in my brain a bit. Also, I had ordered a super deluxe edition from the UK, and wanted to be able to review the package as a whole rather than just the tracks on Spotify. The main album has 13 all brand new songs. In the U.S., Target stores carry a special edition with four bonus tracks that are basically songs that didn’t make the cut. However, the UK edition contains all of this plus four additional tracks. These are from movie and video game soundtracks over the past two years. I definitely had to have these in a physical format finally. The artwork for this album consists of a series of fantasy paintings by Tim Cantor. The UK edition has a separate booklet with one painting for each song on the main album.That, along with the double-disc CD in a swivel jewel case is housed in a nice sturdy outer box as well. Points for the extra effort and design here.
The album starts with the echoey ringing of guitar. “Shots” is a song that is uplifting musically, but in contrast, very apologetic lyrically. In fact that is a tone that carries through the album. There is a sense of guilt for the past that comes through in the lyrics of several songs. Sometimes this is vague, possibly intentionally, and sometimes not. Frontman and lyricist Dan Reynolds seems to have a lot of personal demons, anxiety and worry about the future, and it’s all part of these lyrics. However, he tries to still give it an optimistic bend musically. The contrast works well on this song. I’ve read reviews already that praise what claims to be a more stripped down Imagine Dragons on this album. I disagree. I actually feel there are *more* electronics on this album. However, their use is far more subtle and far more thought out. The band is learning how to use space and atmosphere far better here and how to accentuate certain melodies with a bit of keyboard here and there. One of this band’s strengths is their lack of fear in approaching pop melodies and pop production while still wanting to use traditional rock band instruments. “Shots” is an excellent way to kick off the album. It contains all of the elements this band excels at. The sound of big drums has also carried over. This band loves percussion. Even moreso live. When I saw the band open for Awolnation in 2012, there were so many drums. It gave some of the songs a larger than life presence that pushed them even further than on the album.
The second song, “Gold” is a darker affair. This is a sound they haven’t tried yet. There is a cut and paste tribal thing happening and a lot of stop and start percussion. It picks up where “Radioactive” left off but then steers down a dark corner. This one will most likely be a highlight of their future concerts with its huge drums and haunting voodoo-like melody. The lyrics are an observation of what it’s like to suddenly have what you’ve dreamed of and realize that it brings vultures out of the shadows. Musically, this track is a leap forward, and they really capture the feeling of realizing a dream isn’t all it’s said to be. On the flip side, I hate to see musicians feel this way when they make it big. I can only imagine the shellshock that must happen when you go from playing for your friends to playing for thousands at a time. When I saw the band in concert, a mere two weeks after Night Visions came out, what I witnessed was a band that was sincere and hearts on their sleeves, genuinely humbled by the fact one of their songs was now popular (“It’s Time”) and that much of the crowd knew the words to several of the songs already. That’s one thing that makes me stand by this band – these guys are the real deal, and that carries through in their music.
Track three, “Smoke and Mirrors” seems to be about the search for answers in spirituality. From what I’ve read, Dan Reynolds grew up Mormon, and has had to make peace with his faith as he gets older. It’s really a theme that’s universal at some point for most people, trying to figure out what it all means. This track is a more subdued reflective track. The solo at the end by Wayne Sermon is really nice here. Then in marches “I’m So Sorry”, a big bombastic song about seizing the moment. I’m actually not sure who he’s telling he’s sorry, as he’s giving every reason *not* to be sorry for reaching out and taking what you want from life, other than in the quiet midsection, Dan sings “I know I let you down”. Having not grown up in a Mormon family, I’m not sure if there’s an inherent guilt trip about straying from what the family does, but I’m guessing that’s the case. This is a much heavier track than usual from the band, with some stressed out distorted effects on the chorus and a big catchy riff. The band mixes the live and the digital quite well here.
More answers come with “I Bet My Life”, which at face value seems like a happy upbeat song with an almost bluegrass/barn stomp rhythm on the chorus, except for the thunderous drums and an eerie loop that sounds like a shout of despair or a gospel adlib, or both. This one seems to be an open letter to his family, basically saying he’s sorry to cause them heartache and worry, but that he still loves them dearly. At least that’s what I make of it. Probably one of the most personal sets of lyrics, and yet it is chosen as the first single. I’ve heard this song many times since it came out a few months ago, and I’m still not tired of it. The layers keep it interesting on repeat listens. Next up is “Polaroid”, or the catchiest song on the album. The melody reminds me of something like a children’s song that I can’t seem to name. It has a familiarity like I’ve known it forever. Lyrically it is a love song of a self deprecating worry-wart, expecting love to be a let-down and to fall apart. That could either be a bummer, or it could describe you perfectly. Either way, Dan lays it out there. Again here, the song isn’t exactly happy, but the music lifts it up to an optimistic place.
I’m guessing “side two” starts at “Friction”. This one is harder to describe. It has sort of a Chinatown meets Disturbed thing going on, and ends up being one of the standout tracks. Heavy riffs here and the band really rocks at their hardest here. By contrast, “It Comes Back To You” is a lighter track, with some really fitting U2-esque guitar lacing it. Lyrically it seems to be Dan coming to a point where he’s not as worried and instead is more cautiously optimistic about where his is at this point in time. Then follows “Dream”, a pensive song that seems to be about that time you realize that the world outside can be ugly and messy, and that as a child many of us are sheltered from that harsh reality. Then many of us spend time chasing that childhood again seeking escape. I understand this sometimes all too well.
The next song, “Trouble” is perhaps the one that will need to grow on me. It reminds me a bit too much of Mumford and Sons. It’s not a bad song, it’s just not a style I’m that into. But then I do like “Rocks” on the first album, which was a step in this direction. “Summer” is a puzzling song lyrically. Is it a song about meeting someone and getting to know them before falling in love, or is this a song about opening up to a psychiatrist? “If only for a second let me have you, tell me all your secrets, let me know you” turns to “Open up your mind, fall in line with what you’re meant to be”. I’m leaning towards the latter guess. Next up is possibly my favorite track here, “Hopeless Opus”. Lyrically, it sums up many of the ideas from previous songs here, but it does so well. The band’s best qualities are here – the melody, the attention to detail, the little sonic oddities in the background, and it gets big and anthem at the end. That sounds flat on paper, but the way the song builds makes it an optimistic song about hopelessness. The guitar solo reminds me a lot of the guitar sound on Queen’s “I Want To Break Free”. I will feel a little bit let down if this song isn’t one of the singles.
The last track “The Fall” is a mighty big finale. It seems to be about an inner battle with himself to be able to let go of all the things he worries about to be able to take changes and leaps forward in life. The song builds into a big crashing portion where the band is really on fire, and then gives way to a quiet afterthought of the chorus.
On the UK Super Deluxe Edition, that ends disc one – the actual album. Disc Two, or the bonus tracks on the Target edition are next. I think it was a good idea to separate them. There should be a bit of silence after “The Fall” that lets the last echo of the song fade away. “Thief” is a really worthy song. It’s big and bright and shows a mix of influence of U2’s “Beautiful Day” in spirit and maybe some of the more anthemic songs by The Killers. Singing “Take me back when I believed, back when I was unafraid just like a thief”, it’s a song about realizing you really can’t turn back in life once you leap forward. “The Unknown” has a dizzying drum loop with a similar yell in the mix to that in “I Bet My Life”. In fact, this song is really a complimentary song to it as it is about addressing family about his choices to move on and split away. It would make the perfect b-side. “Second Chances” is a slow burner, opening with plucky guitar and cello. This one feels like it belongs in a reflective movie moment. It has a quiet beauty but doesn’t jump out at you like many of the other songs. “Release” is the last of these bonuses. It is an acoustic track that reminds me a bit of moodier Ed Sheeran. It’s another song about being at a crossroads and doubting oneself. While it’s a really good song, I just want to say “Dan! Stop worrying! You’re doing just fine!”. Hopefully after the soul searching on this album he comes to that conclusion. But then how many people that are perfectly happy write relateable lyrics?
The UK bonuses are why I sprung for the $27 import copy. First we have “Warriors”. This comes from a commercial promo for League of Legends 2014 World Championship and the upcoming Divergent Series: Insurgent movie. It *feels* like a big movie theme. The orchestra and drums build up so huge and climatic in this one and gave me goosebumps the first time I listened to it really loud. Even though it was a standalone iTunes single in September, it didn’t really get noticed the way a normal Imagine Dragons single would. It’s a nice contrast to all of the doubt in many of the other songs, even if it was probably written as a theme. Next we get “Battle Cry”, with a dark dreamlike melody woven throughout, that soon gives way to a flood of drums that give it a true battle feel like it should have. This was recorded for Transformers: Age of Extinction. The band is in top form here, giving all their energy in a pulsating beast of a track. I was surprised this wasn’t a normal album track. Next is “Monster”, a track made for the 2013 game Infinity Blade III. This one didn’t grab me at first, but it grew on me. It also suffers from the problem that plagued some songs on Night Visions, where the mix is peaked to the point of annoying distortion and breaking up. Otherwise, the song is pretty good though. It was a stepping stone to get to the new album, definitely. Rounding out the collection is “Who We Are”, from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I really enjoy this one. The marching drums and the choir and instrumentation are a step above the norm for the band. It fits the mood of the movie perfectly. But I can’t remember it being in the movie. The soundtrack wasn’t really a soundtrack – it should have been called Songs That Remind You Of The Overall Feel of ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’, But Weren’t Actually Used In The Movie Except Maybe 30 Seconds In The Credits.
The celebratory champion vibe of these bonus tracks counter some of the self doubt heard elsewhere and keep it balanced as a collection. It’s nice to have these in one place so I don’t have to make my own compilation.
That’s a lot of music. Twenty one songs total. Thirteen if you just listen to the standard version. I don’t like the idea of comparing this to Night Visions. That seems unfair. Night Visions contains songs written over the course of a few years, and some had even been the best of what was on previous EPs. Aside from the last four bonus tracks, this is all new material and clearly reflects where the band is right now. It’s a very strong album. If the band stays honest with themselves and doesn’t cave to negative criticism, I think they will continue to make some really fine albums in the future. They can clearly write melodies. They know how to craft songs that actually get heard by a mass audience. But yet their lyrics remain honest. I can’t ask for much more in a rock band. I highly recommend Smoke + Mirrors and I’m sure I’ll be listening to these songs for some time to come.
Get your copy of Smoke + Mirrors HERE:
Check out the videos:
“I Bet My Life”