Hearing Aide: Imagine Dragons ‘Smoke & Mirrors’

With the huge success of their first studio album Night Visions in 2012, selling more than 2 million copies to date, Imagine Dragons took the world by storm and by doing so set the bar pretty high for themselves when it came to following up with their second studio album. They had fallen into the proverbial trap of having such a huge success right out of the gate, that anything following was bound to be held to a higher standard. So with this dilemma, how did this Grammy Award winning band follow up their first hit album? They did it like they should, with an album written for themselves. After all, isn’t that what music is about? Personal messages paired with instrumentals to express themselves.

Writing continuously while on the road touring , the band compiled and recorded demos and as the Night Visions Tour ended, they purchased a house in Las Vegas, converted it into a studio, and for the next 8 months put together a story of sorts from experiences on the road that were laden with a roller coaster of personal emotions. After all, the whirlwind of life on the road from local venues to sold out arenas, had to take a toll on them emotionally. What better way to share than through song?

Hailed as one of rock n roll’s greatest newcomers in the 2013, their new found popularity and accolades brimmed over the top as America welcomed them with open arms. As new artists trying to achieve success, was the photo in their mind exactly what they pictured once achieved, or was it writ with unbeknownst angst they would encounter throughout the tour and along the way? I believe it may have been some of the latter. As I listened to the new album the creative differences between the two albums were not as apparent as other seemed to say.  I still saw the same vocals and rhythmic distinctions still shining through.

I love Imagine Dragons, and I believe it’s their unique sound and truthful lyrics that caught my attention initially and holds it still today.  It’s not their commercial success that makes them stand out. They are not mainstream music, they are not mainstream artists, and their unique style and sound is representative of who they are and how their creative process. Yes, their sound has been compared to a mix of The Killers, U2, Coldplay, Mumford & Sons, and Arcade Fire; taking bits and pieces from each band when making that generalization – influences have that kind of effect on you. You tend to find yourself creating similar sounds because, well you like them in the first place.  They have been criticized for using every technical instrumentation trick known to mankind in their new music, and my reply to that is, ‘so what?’ That’s why it exists: to use it. Artists are known for creating something from their souls. It doesn’t have to be what you would want it to be. If that was the case, it would be your creation. So the fact that they use any or all technical tricks doesn’t lessen their musical creations to me in the least. I feel it has an energy to it. Although the lyrics on this album brim with a deep dark almost undaunting edge, the pulsating rhythms and melodic vocals give it an upbeat sound that over plays the underlying message.

Working along side Alex Da Kid on this album, his reputation for bringing out the creative sides of artists like Eminem and Christina Aguilera, demonstrates the perfect example why he’s a perfect match with Imagine Dragons on each of their studio albums.

As I listened to this album I had to do so a few times before I could collect my thoughts to develop a constructive opinion. In true Imagine Dragons style you have the strong percussions and amazing vocals and harmonies with a mix of synthesizer in there throughout the album, but with this particular album you got something else. You get variety in sounds that represent their travels with the first album. What the audience had become accustomed to (vocal/harmonies/percussion/synth) from Imagine Dragons was there in songs such as “Shots” and “The Fall”, but you also got a hint of some R&B with “Friction”, mixed with a flair of the Middle Eastern sounds in there as well. In “Hopeless Opus” you’ll see a flavor of Asian sounds intermixed with a bit of rapping, guitar solo, synth. Heck you pretty much get a bit of everything in that song. Same goes for “Summer”. The beauty though is how well they were all mixed together seamlessly. In fact in most of the songs you’ll see a variety of sounds and tempos within the songs that without the expert help in mixing could have been a disaster. This is where the expertise of Alex Da Kid played a huge part.

I have to say my favorite tracks were “I Bet My Life” and “Trouble” demonstrating their folky sounds mixed with a huge helping of underlying percussion. Just love their take on this sound. Running close second would be “It Comes Back To You” and “Dream” where I can definitely see influences from Coldplay and U2 in this song. It was the upbeat tempo and lyrics in this song that hooked me; “…all the things you had lost will find their way to you… am I a shadow you drew.” I can definitely see a commercial success with this release.

Criticized by others on this album, I definitely can see a darker side in their lyrics though with an underlying message perhaps of life on the road wasn’t all they expected, but I can’t understand the criticism. Music is an expression of life and everyone’s message is different. Give me a break negative Nellies. In both “Gold” and “Polaroid”, focus should be on the mixing of sounds, not the lyrics. “Gold” was another example of expert mixing. “Polaroid” to me was a little disappointing but only because as a photographer I had hoped this track would be as upbeat a message that the tempo held. But hey, everyone sees something different in a photo hence the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words”, and the message was something totally different. But still, it was a good song. No one is going to like every song on an album; you can’t expect every album to be Sgt. Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band.

The title track “Smoke and Mirrors” and “I’m So Sorry” give the listener a true rock and roll feel to the songs. These will be great live songs with the guitar and percussion in them.

After listening to the whole album several times, I came one conclusion: it’s a great album. Was it what the public anticipated from them? Perhaps not. Was it the mix of techno sounds with anthem rock and pop beats they are known for? Yep. With so many negative reviews and plays on words with the title, I find Smoke & Mirrors nothing but honest and forthwith. I can see the growth within the band, and the influences of experiences of the last few years in their lyrics. It’s the honesty on this album though that makes it the perfect second album. As far as commercial success, I believe those that loved Imagine Dragons will agree with me that this was a great album. It may not be a mainstream as some expected, but when it came to making an album that is true to themselves, this definitely met their expectations. This is one of those albums I think that when you listen to it initially you may not get it right away, so listen a few more times. Read the lyrics and see the messages. Then go back and listen to the music once again, and you will see that this really was a great album and will play out even more so as a great live performance.

As they roll into town this week to the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, they will be joined by Metric and Halsey.  Show starts at 7pm and tickets can be purchased through Live Nation.  Hope to see you there.

Key Tracks: Shots, I Bet My Life, Dream