Success has been rough for Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons, the Las Vegas-based rock band that sold over 2 million copies of its 2012 debut, “Night Visions,” thanks to inescapable hits such as “It’s Time” and “Radioactive.” A dubstep-dipped welcome to a post-apocalyptic age, the latter spent 87 weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100, longer than any other song in the chart’s history.
Nearly a year after “Radioactive” finally dropped off the tally, though, Reynolds seems to think doomsday has only just begun.
“First comes the blessing of all that you dreamed / But then comes the curses of diamonds and rings,” he moans in “Gold,” from the new Imagine Dragons album, “Smoke + Mirrors.” The title track elaborates on that bruising disappointment, invoking “a dream that comes crashing down on me.”
Why, then, if this dude is so miserable — “depressed as hell,” as he recently confessed to Billboard — does “Smoke + Mirrors” already feel like the most bombastic record we’ll hear this year? Full of fist-pumping choruses and foot-stomping grooves, it plays like one long pep rally; hardly what you’d expect from a cursed man.
One answer is that the album is another demonstration of the shrewd market strategy we saw in action at last week’s Grammy Awards, where Imagine Dragons — presumably either uninvited or unavailable to appear on the CBS telecast — teamed with Target to present a live performance of its new single, “Shots,” during a commercial break. (If you can’t join ‘em, the idea seemed to be, pay ‘em a reported $8 million to at least get close to ‘em.)
It’s no accident that this band is one of the few rock acts making commercial waves at a moment dominated by pop and electronic dance music. Imagine Dragons makes rock that functions more or less as EDM, with the same sleek synth textures and throbbing rhythms and, most important, the same emotional fever pitch as huge hits by Calvin Harris and Swedish House Mafia.
There are guitars on “Smoke + Mirrors,” sure, but they’re just part of a craftily assembled package that seems designed for listeners who don’t especially care about guitars.
And here the package is craftier than ever. Working with producer Alex Da Kid, also known for his collaborations with Eminem and Christina Aguilera, Reynolds and his mates blow out familiar styles with bigger-is-better arrangements, as in “I Bet My Life,” a blast of digitized Mumford & Sons arena folk, and the hammering title track, which sounds like Coldplay after a course of human growth hormone. (Check out the comically intense drum fill at the 45-second mark.)
Elsewhere they make muscular jock jams of Arcade Fire’s jittery disco rock (in “Shots”) and the Black Keys’ fuzzy garage blues (“I’m So Sorry”).
Yet for all the calculation you can hear on “Smoke + Mirrors,” Reynolds also comes off as hopelessly sincere — a thinker in real conflict with the carnival of ambition and superficiality that his existence has become, and a frontman with no other forum in which to conduct that battle than his music.
“I Bet My Life,” for instance, rather unsexily addresses his parents’ unhappiness over his decision to pursue the band (at the expense, perhaps, of his Mormon religion). And he practically sounds on the edge of tears in “Hopeless Opus” as he slowly dismantles the rock-star myth: “It’s not a picture-perfect life, not what I had in mind.”
There are moments, too, where Imagine Dragons sounds so downright lame — including “Friction,” a ghastly mash-up of Middle Eastern riffs and warmed-over rap-metal rhymes — that you simply can’t believe Reynolds is working to impress anyone but himself. A true disaster, “Friction” is almost bravely unfashionable, even by the lumpen standards of modern rock in 2015.
How to square Reynolds’ convincing agony with his willingness to make another album sure to bring on more of it? “Smoke + Mirrors” never really engages that question, just as it never demonstrates the sense of humor that might endear Imagine Dragons to the band’s many critics. (Hey, it helped U2.)
In the end it’s unclear what drives Reynolds toward success or, more to the point, what success looks like to him now that he’s been so thoroughly disillusioned. “Smoke + Mirrors” puts across strong feelings, but it refuses to reveal how they work.
“Smoke + Mirrors”
2 stars out of 4