New Smoke + Mirrors Album Fails to Ignite Radioactive Spark

Vida Weisblum, Arts Editor

American rock band Imagine Dragons’ freshly released sophomore LP would make an appropriate soundtrack for any Showtime TV melodrama. However, aside from making for some decent background music, Smoke + Mirrors’ decidedly mainstream vibe fails to rekindle much of the “radioactive” spark Imagine Dragons once ignited.

Released on Tuesday, the album spans 50 minutes of music — 10 minutes less than the band’s deluxe 2012 debut album, Night Visions, which included breakout songs like “It’s Time,” “Radioactive” and “Demons.” Now, just three years later, Imagine Dragons, which formed in 2008, might already be running out of quality inspiration. The new track list does include some more recent hits, including “I Bet My Life” and “Gold,” which, despite their popularity, are subpar predecessors of the true Imagine Dragons gold of yesteryear.

The band equates angst with musical strength, which causes problems for Smoke + Mirrors. Due to the ferocious guitar strumming and the sporadic shouting in “I’m So Sorry,” the song resembles a lackluster remake of Billy Squier’s “The Stroke.” Meanwhile, “Dream” could pass as a OneRepublic song, albeit minus catchy instrumentals and thoughtfully constructed lyrics. Later, in a more mellow tune, lead singer Dan Reynolds repeatedly moans, “We all are living in a dream / But life ain’t what it seems / Oh everything’s a mess” throughout each chorus. The soft instrumentals leading into the lyrics are mellow but are ultimately dulled by these repetitive vocals. Eventually, the single line finds its breaking point where the lack of tonal variation melds into an unbearably annoying stream of noise.

With a nearly identical sound to the band’s original top songs, Smoke + Mirrors is plagued with an intensity that falls below the level of hardcore metal, yet relies too much on scream-singing and electronic elements to be pure rock. Riddled with repetitive lyrics and choruses that bank on title phrases, the album’s songs are devoid of much meaning.
The debut song of the album, “Shots,” boasts several moments of excitability but could easily be confused for any other song the band has produced and would easily suit the end credits of a rom-com starring Ashton Kutcher. The discombobulated general sound of the song mixes Imagine Dragons’ excitement with poorly rendered choral harmonizing, some cool electronic sounding scales and a generous dab of ’80s falsetto.

A similar effect occurs in its hit song “Gold,” in which the lyrics repeat the word “gold” for what seems like an infinite number of times. Interspersed throughout the song are unsatisfying attempts at electronic distortion that disrupt the flow of the song like human hiccups in the midst of conversation. Nonetheless, Reynolds preaches with electric grandeur highlighted by a strong guitar solo. These two tracks prove the most successful of the album despite theatrical peaks and valleys.

One of the final tracks, “Hopeless Opus,” renders Smoke + Mirrors a questionable production. The song first offers a catchy rhythm but then declines once a layer of painfully out-of-tune vocals infiltrates the sound. A tedious lament accompanies Reynolds’s underdeveloped choice of words: “Oh I’m trying not to face what’s become of me / My hopeless opus.” The sporadic interjection of the unsettling phrase “hopeless opus” persists throughout the chorus and may inspire giggling.

Though the enthusiastic energy with which the band crafted most of its tracks is apparent, Smoke + Mirrors is generally mediocre. Reynolds’s passionate singing is complemented by climactic guitar-heavy instrumentals, which make it easy to become emotionally invested in his songs. Nevertheless, Smoke + Mirrors is exactly what its title suggests — Imagine Dragons’ overall unclear aesthetic. A second album should effectively develop upon a pre-existing sound and propel a musical artist further toward realizing their conceptual potential. While its original sound still rings clear, Imagine Dragons has yet to follow a single cohesive trajectory. Only time will tell if the band can regain its momentum.