Last year during Grammy season, there was a rumor making the rounds that Kendrick Lamar, then and now the nation’s most promising young rapper, was forced to perform a song during the show’s telecast with the Las Vegas-based Imagine Dragons, then and now the nation’s hottest rock band, instead of being granted a much-deserved solo spot.
As rumors go, it was irresistible, like imagining 2004 Kanye West being made to sit with Journey’s 1980 lineup in the school cafeteria at lunch. The performance itself, a mashup of Imagine Dragons’ biggest hit, “Radioactive” and Lamar’s “m.A.A.d. city,” was ridiculous and thrilling: Enormous drums were banged, paint bombs were detonated, and everyone wore what looked like decontamination suits and tried to pretend to be alone onstage.
“Smoke + Mirrors” is Imagine Dragons’ first full-length release since that myth-making Grammy performance briefly made them more interesting. It will cement your poor opinion of the band, confirming your suspicions that the group is made up of corporate rock arrivistes more interested in a Jenga-like piling on of cool-circa-2012 influences than in presenting its own point of view. It will advance the notion that Imagine Dragons is an inexplicably popular band that no one will admit to liking, even as a guilty pleasure. It has neither soul nor taste. It’s also pretty good.
“Smoke + Mirrors” relies less on hip-hop beats than its predecessor, the group’s 2012 major-label debut album “Night Visions,” but otherwise it follows much the same formula: carefully sculpted arena rock with freight-train choruses, overlaid with decorative touches pinched from a variety of different genres. Imagine Dragons has wedged itself into a tiny piece of real estate that previously didn’t exist, among the Killers, Coldplay, bro-like electronic dance music and delicate British bands that favor old-timey instruments.
Not only is Imagine Dragons unafraid to mix sounds that are terrible with sounds that are great, the band gives no indication it can distinguish between the two. Opening track “Shots” is reminiscent of late 2000s synth-pop from Brooklyn, piled vertiginously high and shorn of its subtlety, like something Passion Pit might have recorded for a Disney soundtrack. “I Bet My Life” is Mumford & Sons-esque stadium rock. “I’m So Sorry” buries a solid blues song under a mountain of needless distortion. The lumbering and glitchy “Gold” examines fame and its discontents (“Only at first did it have its appeal / But now you can’t tell the false from the real”).
“Smoke + Mirrors” tries hard to channel the grandeur of U2 in its prime. Sometimes it succeeds, but too often it settles for imitating the imitators; the title track is like Coldplay, right down to singer Dan Reynolds’s keening falsetto. Imagine Dragons has never met a serviceable rock song it couldn’t make worse by weighing it down with electronic effects or generically exotic Middle Eastern flourishes, or handclaps and choirs or several of those things at the same time. The group is beholden to its influences while showing little affection for them. Every emotion is telegraphed from a thousand yards away. This is possibly the most popular new rock band in America. We deserve them.
Yet Imagine Dragons is very good at what it does, even if what it does isn’t very good. “Smoke + Mirrors” has one purpose, effortlessly achieved: cram as many popular styles as possible into a mainstream rock album to appeal to as many people as it can. It’s catchy and broad, without the wounded defensiveness common to many second-album bands that have endured a first-album drubbing at the hands of cultural gatekeepers and Twitter snobs. The album offers stark proof that the elements prized by those gatekeepers, things such as coherence, narrative realism and the ability to strip away unnecessary distractions — the things that make a song objectively good — are not necessarily the things that make it connect.
“Smoke + Mirrors” hits every of its (overly broad) targets. It positions Imagine Dragons as the heir to not-entirely-ignoble corporate rock behemoths such as Journey and Asia, similarly anonymous crafters of similarly pleasing and empty songs. It always has been difficult to gain a sense of Imagine Dragons as anything other than a feckless trend surfer and aficionado of musical shiny things. In the band’s early days, much critical blood was shed in an attempt to figure out who was underneath the blandness and bluster. To its credit, Imagine Dragons has never pretended that there was an underneath or claimed to offer anything more than fitfully entertaining melodrama for its own sake. There’s no reason not to take the band at its word.
Stewart is a freelance writer.