This article was first published by The Edge on 15th July 2017
Can it really be only four and a half years since Imagine Dragons’ debut album Night Visions took our world by storm? The band that future historians will cite as the biggest influence on the soundtracking and promotion of films and TV in the 2010s (perhaps next to only Lana Del Rey) will neither go away nor succeed in proving that they matter. Be honest with yourself – did you know there was a third Imagine Dragons album released in June? Did you know that in the last year they had released songs other than disposable made-for-movie-soundtrack singles like ‘Sucker For Pain’ and ‘Levitate’? Did you know they are the 10th most popular act worldwide on Spotify, with nearly double the monthly listens of cited “Similar Artist” OneRepublic?
By now, lamentably, they have cemented themselves as the foremost stadium rock act both of this decade and of the generations Y and Z. Evolve brings nothing new to the table, not that we would expect such a thing. These guys weren’t new when they arrived, they were just appropriately timed to strike a cultural nerve – no matter the sincerity behind the adolescent defiance of ‘It’s Time’, the adolescent joy of ‘On Top Of The World’, the adolescent angst of ‘Demons’, or the adolescent rebirth in ‘Radioactive’, there’s not a note in any song which speaks to a specific experience. They’re broad in all manner of ways: instrumentation, genre traditions, and lyrical vagueness. Whatever they look like in retrospect, something about these songs, from this band, at that time, connected. But you can’t manufacture magic, and there isn’t a single song on Evolve that fakes sincerity as well as any of the band’s debut material did.
As with anything pleasantly average, the most interesting parts of Evolve are where it works despite itself. Say goodbye to the dull piano balladising (‘Dream’) or ugly Prodigy-ous sound collisions (‘Friction’) of their sophomore record; here their unilateral, anthemic aim won’t allow for such detours. ‘Start Over’, a poor mixture between Cher’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’ and several recent steel-drum centred dancehall imitators is the record’s penultimate song. Sickening as its musical inspirations are, it’s also the second to function as vocalist Dan Reynold’s plea for reconciliation with his partner. And exactly like the first (‘I’ll Make It Up To You’), the calculated focus on making as grandiose and marketable a pop song as possible seems to have given way to a sociopathic lack of self-reflection in the lyrics. The former pares the lyrics right down to the bare minimum of four lines per verse/pre-chorus/chorus/bridge and the latter three sections are all the same – the chorus repeats “Can we start over?” an astonishing six times, and the bridge obstinately sticks to the line “Come alive, come alive, come alive again”. What’s worse, ‘I’ll Make It Up To You’ sounds more like the disingenuous plea of an abusive partner, rather than an acknowledgement of fault. The melody frames the lyrical dialogue in honest and humble tones, however a second listen can’t cover it up:
“I know you don’t understand/The vices that follow a man/And in your eyes I can see/The places that you’d rather be/’Cause honey it’s been a hard year/It seems like we’re going nowhere/You’re crying inside your bedroom/Baby, I know it’s not fair”
There’s not an ounce of guilt in these words, nor any admission of fault, but Reynold’s delivery gives the pretence of humility and sacrifice – the only action he owns up to is ‘knowing’ his partner, whilst constantly re-iterating her acts in an all too personal ‘you’. It’s her desire to be elsewhere, her tears, her feminine lack of understanding of pesky manly vices that are at fault. This isn’t just patronising, it’s disturbing.
Yet it’s because of their consistent optimism, through the power-chords, power-drums, power-power anthem structures that Imagine Dragons can so effectively mask this insincerity. They don’t so much make songs about events, people, or experiences, as they do pick a trending topic in the meta-narrative of their own lives, and extrapolate that ever further backwards, into the most broadly-applicable version of that idea. It’s why the songs approaching personal tales are so empty and cruel. In addition, pairing Mad Max war drums and synths with a glorification of individual struggle and the personification of ‘PAIN!’ you get a legitimately skin-crawling earworm like ‘Believer’. Subtle as a ten-tonne war rig headlined by a flamethrower-twin-neck-guitar to the face, sure, and that chaotic fusion works.
Sometimes they even approach a real human’s heart. ‘Walking The Wire’ is essentially the antithesis to ‘I’ll Make It Up To You’: a great, big ode to a partnership that works in spite of a few remarkable obstacles thrown in its path. There’s the obvious symbol of a ‘storm’ for a ‘difficult period’, but its use is minor, and sets up the positivity of the pre-chorus’ line “Feel the wind in your hair/Feel the rush way up here”. It leads to an eponymous chorus where the imagery and anthemic reach of the song is earned by deservedly unrestrained vocals.
Imagine Dragons are now so set in their ways that they’re almost past the point of genuine criticism. They’re the Transformers of music, a comparison made all the more appropriate given that a bonus track from their 2015 album Smoke & Mirrorsappeared in Trans4mers’ soundtrack (‘Battle Cry’, if you cared to know, is terrible). You know what you’re getting, and you know if it’ll work for you. For what it’s worth, this is far from the most tiresome Pop/Rock album released this year; yet it’s quite possibly the most forgettable and anodyne. Once again, these guys are the 10thmost streamed act worldwide on Spotify. You should be ashamed of yourselves.
Evolve is available now via Interscope Records