Album Review: Smoke + MirrorsWonkeyDude98 Mini-Description: For my seventh album review, I revisit Imagine Dragons for their bombastic attempt at arena rock....that doesn't really provide.
Best Songs: "Gold", "Shots", "I'm So Sorry", "The Fall", "Friction", "Summer", "Trouble"
Worst Songs: "It Comes Back To You", "Smoke & Mirrors", "Hopeless Opus", "Polaroid"
Hello everyone, and it's time to review the sophomore album by Imagine Dragons titled Smoke + Mirrors. If my reviews, remixes, and comments are any indication, I am quite the fan of Imagine Dragons, to the point where Night Visions was my favorite album of all time, with its highlight Demons being my favorite song of all time. Admittedly, it sounds like a stretch to say those, but nothing has resonated with me better than Night Visions. (Since I've been into Imagine Dragons since 2014 when I first started really listening to music, I can say the following sentence) So when I heard they were dropping an album in February of 2015, I was ecstatic. Did I get what I thought I would?
Well, I'll admit that I had some pretty high expectations for this record and it......didn't quite reach them. Now, let's just get the easy stuff out of the way. Is this album good? YES. Is it even close to the level of Night Visions? NO. Is this album great? Well....no.
Now, a good place to start is the instrumentation, which is pretty fascinating and varied. It isn't always the best thing ever, primarily the sudden explosion of every instrument in existence that ruined the title track, and the pretty stiff guitars and smooth pumping drums of I Bet My Life, but other than that, it's pretty interesting. We have the vicious crunch of I'm So Sorry that's probably the closest this album will get to being pure rock, the fluttery U2 inspired guitars and hollow tappy synths of Shots, the gritty explosiveness of the guitars and Caribbean synths on Gold which is the best song on the album, the crackling groove on Friction, and the soft melancholy on The Fall and Summer. Many call these stylistic choices incoherent, I call it experimental. It's interesting seeing Imagine Dragons go in all these different direction with their sound.
And then we get to my favorite thing about Imagine Dragons: their lyrics. Admittedly...there isn't a real high point lyrically here. While I did like the imagery in the anti-glamor of Gold and the sincere apologies of Shots, there isn't really much to this album that isn't either something Imagine Dragons has done before or entirely unlikeable. On the former case we have the underwrittenly desperate Polaroid which seems ripped straight from Underdog or Nothing Left To Say without the stakes that made those two so compelling. And on the latter we have I Bet My Life. I get why someone would like it, and I respect it enough to recommend it, but with each listen I realize how condescending the framing is. If he's told a million lies to you, Mrs. Reynolds, what reason do you have to trust his "single truth"?
Then we get to the vocals, which yet again are a step down from their debut. Since this record is by aesthetic choice alone a "heavier" rock record than Night Visions, you'd think that Dan Reynolds' vocals would gain some more rough edges, some swagger or angst of many rockstars, and yet.....he doesn't. He's proven that thematically this album is kind of a one-trick pony with the same insecurity and loss that was on Night Visions, but without a lot of the raw power he had on that album. He has moments of sincerity here, such as his Bono-esque falsetto on Shots, his soft whisper on the bridge of I'm So Sorry before exploding back into the killer pummel of that song, and even his tearful screeching on Dream was good, even if the song was pretty awkward and underwritten.
But even with the mainly incredible instrumentation, my main issue with this album has to be Alex da Kid's production. Now, the reason Night Visions worked as well as it did was because, despite its rough edge and occasional grime or soul, the production was mostly hip-hop inspired, which ADK is comfortable with. Considering the rock direction Imagine Dragons took with this record....it's evident that Kid is nowhere near as comfortable with rock. The production on most of these songs are rigid, stiff, and clunky. And if they aren't, they are brittle and frail. Despite Gold being the best song on the album, it's a primary example of the former. The percussion and whistle punish any real guitar rollick or melody. There's also the aforementioned title track that decides to explode to the chorus at random, completely killing the song's momentum. And then for the latter, we have elements such as the Shots rehash in It Comes Back To You or the grating bells in Polaroid.
And on the more criminal side of things, we have the bridge of Hopeless Opus where Dan and Alex thought it was a good idea to put Dan's vocals in pitch-shifted fragments that's just annoying. Despite the pretty awesome guitar solo that came straight after, it's easily the worst song on the album. The result of most of these percussion-overloaded fuzz-saturated songs is that they end up becoming rather bland and thin, and honestly forgettable and interchangeable.
But let's stop being depressing for a bit. Let's talk about the deluxe songs, which are a HUGE improvement across the board. They're thicker, meatier, even more emotional at many points! We have the crackle of the groove and the anthemic glowy guitar tones on Thief, the soft smooth piano ballad Second Chances, the equally smooth acoustic ballad Release, and the rumbling bass and glitchy sample on The Unknown. And these are just the tip of the iceberg, it gets better.
The previously released songs are all here, and they're fantastic. The powerful gospel swell of Who We Are from the Hunger Games soundtrack (and the lyrics make sense in that context too), the fist-pumping anthem Warriors from League of Legends with one of the greatest guitar solos of their career, the hollow glitchy crunch of Battle Cry from the Trans4mers soundtrack, and probably the best song on any version of the album we have Monster from Infinity Blade III, which is basically a more intense and cacophonous version of Demons. While Monster isn't anywhere near as good as Demons (mainly because I prefer the stripped back intimacy of that song), it's still a fantastic song, and one of the band's best songs period.
If it were up to me, the deluxe version would have an impact on the rating of this album. Since it isn't up to me, the album is kind of a sophomore slump. It's still good, but it's nowhere near as tight, impactful, or emotionally nuanced as Night Visions. And when it is tight it gives itself no room to breathe. This was an interesting dabble in different styles, just a messy one. I'm thinking a strong 7/10, and a strong recommendation only to fans of Night Visions. Now, don't get me wrong, it's a good album, it's enjoyable, there isn't a truly bad song on this album. But Imagine Dragons, they can and have done better than this. Since 2008. This is WonkeyDude98, signing out of an album that I wish I could like more.
Amazing review as always. I haven't listened to much ID, but I can see your point in your consensuses. - SwagFlicks
Thanks. - WonkeyDude98
I actually liked Hopeless Opus. It was catchy. However, Night Visions was truly better. Great review. - ProPanda
It wasn't terrible, but it was mediocre at best. Yeah, Night Visions was infinitely better. Thanks. - WonkeyDude98
Well, 3 is a lucky number... - visitor
? - WonkeyDude98
Maybe the 3rd album will be better. - visitor
They said they won't be doing anything else for 2016 other than Not Today for the Me Before You soundtrack. - WonkeyDude98
Oh... not at this rate - ProPanda
Great review. imagine dragons were the band that got me into music. for a long time they were my favorite band, before I moved on to older music, and demons is still one of my favorite songs. I agree that's it's definitely not as good as night visions, as there are some songs I don't like(such as polaroid and hopeless opus). also smoke and mirriors was one of my favorite songs on the album. - RecklessGreed
Yeah - WonkeyDude98
Yeezus, four worst songs?! - WonkeyDude98
What?! Smoke and Mirrors is an awesome song! - TheDarkOne_221b