Here’s the question you never want to ask yourself after confronting a mediocre run for a band: were they ever that good to begin with? It’s a terrible thing to ask, because you’re now questioning old opinions and old reviews placed in hindsight where history can definitely color how you see them and the art now? Maybe not entirely – it’s not like I can’t revisit the first album by The Strokes knowing the downward slide they were going to face – but you get this faint pang of regret and a sense of that there could have been so much more…
And no band has ever epitomized that for me in the mainstream more than Imagine Dragons. Let me make this clear, while their debut Night Visions had issues, the great songs on that album were amazingly good, and it reflected a sound and direction for a modern rock band that had potential, blending in elements of folk with some indie rock smolder and electronic rock punch, it was enough for me to bypass how the production could feel a little monochromatic and the lyrics could feel a tad flimsy or overwrought – but hey, it fit, right, given Dan Reynolds as a frontman? Well, fast forward to 2015 and Smoke + Mirrors, a record that reflected nothing more than a band cycling through ideas and trying to ram them through their established framework. Many people – including myself – called it a sophomore slump, and considering how badly it did on the charts, with no real sustainable crossover single, I thought Imagine Dragons may have been out for the count.
And yet going into Evolve it seems like Imagine Dragons has actually regained some momentum, pushing their frustrating producer Alex da Kid to the sidelines for the majority of the project and instead churning out a tight set of eleven tracks. And while I had no real expectations that this would be great – critics if anything have been even harder on this project than Smoke + Mirrors – you all still wanted me to cover it, so what came from Evolve?
Honestly, I think after a number of listens to this I completely get why this hasn’t exactly been getting much attention beyond the singles, because while I have been forgiving of Imagine Dragons in the past or at least willing to say there was more going on, that they weren’t a boring group… can’t really say that this time around. Yeah, there’s a little more consistency in the production on Evolve, but when you consider how the writing seems to have taken a sharp dip towards generic platitudes, you start to realize how much of a slog this album is. It’s got enough moments that are tolerable that’ll save it from a failing grade… but only barely.
And I think a big part of this is that Dan Reynolds finally seemed to get a little more of a handle on his vocals delivery this time around, mostly staying away from the falsetto and high notes that don’t fit his more raw belting – yes, I’ve heard ‘Believer’, I said mostly – and leveraging his multi-tracking pretty effectively. I’ll be the first to say I’m a fan of Dan Reynolds as a singer, as he’s got a huge range and real presence, to the point where you definitely wish he had a meatier rock guitar or bassline behind him – and yes, we’ll get to this in a second, but I think the more pressing issue is that his vocal production continues to not flatter Reynolds as much as it should, more out of inconsistency this time around. By far the worst examples are ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Dancing In The Dark’, which are both bad songs not helped by the shifting, muddy fidelity of the vocal pickup that no extra pitch-corrected crooning can fix, it just becomes a runny mess.
…which might as well be applicable for the production too, to be honest. And while I’ve tended to be a bit more forgiving of Imagine Dragons than most when it comes to emphasizing percussion over melody – those thunderous beats have always been one of their biggest selling points, along with the wheedling guitars and a stubborn lack of real groove – but it was Evolve that showed for me why it doesn’t work: blending. All the more pronounced here with mixes that are more spacious and reverb touched than normal, if you pay attention to much of the synthetic beats or percussion, not only are they at the front of the mix, the actual percussion sound doesn’t expand through the mix but instead feels confined to the front, which not only feels increasingly inorganic but it doesn’t build any potential synergy with the melody. Granted, the guitar melodies are pretty frail here as it is, often in muted acoustics or a few liquid electronic tones, seemingly de-emphasized in favor of bigger, blockier synths that seem imported from your average 80s rock tune. And sure, it’s a fine stylistic flourish for indie rock, but not only are Imagine Dragons heading into some oversaturated territory, it’s hard not to feel like they’re bringing anything new – hell, the opening track ‘I Don’t Know Why’ sounds like a leftover from The Weeknd, and it’s another reason why songs like ‘I’ll Make It Up To You’ and ‘Start Over’ and ‘Dancing In The Dark’ feel so forgettable – at least the 80s rock and metal I remembered allowed a guitar solo with real shred behind it. Now that’s not saying Imagine Dragons can’t bring some decent swell – ‘Whatever It Takes’ actually has some muscle in the low end, as does ‘Mouth Of The River’ with some noisier percussion, and even if ‘Walking The Wire’ feels depressingly conventional in its composition, it feels like a decent pop rock song, which I think is a more promising direction than Imagine Dragons following trends or with songs like ‘Believer’ trying and mostly failing to rip off AWOLNATION.
But the real sinking blow for me comes in the songwriting and lyrics – and look, even the Imagine Dragons songs I like can feel a little ridiculously overwrought and kind of underwritten, taking one idea and kind of hammering it into the ground without delving into real nuance. But while that was a problem on Night Visions and Smoke + Mirrors, it’s utterly crippling for EVOLVE, as the song topics either span trying to find real direction and plowing forward as a band despite adversaries that feel very nebulously defined, or your typical bad relationship song and trying to make it through together. In the former category, I can at least appreciate some high concept songwriting on ‘Mouth of the River’ and ‘Whatever It Takes’, where the writing can show a tad more self-awareness at the peculiar place Imagine Dragons holds in popular music, but I’m not sure it makes up for relationship songs like ‘I’ll Make It Up To You’ where they say the girl can’t possibly understand the ‘vices that follow a man’, or how on ‘Start Over’ he never actually says the words ‘I’m sorry’ to try and get this girl back – owning your mistakes is very different than apologizing for them, dude. But it’s indicative of something underlying all the writing that really comes to the forefront on the album: a messianic complex that is very willing to show Imagine Dragons go through so much pain and suffering to come out ahead, but I have to question where the source of this angst really is. It feels frustratingly generic and directionless on Evolve, a lot of broad language – which you would expect for arena rock – but without a grounding influence, or even a sense of brighter triumph in coming out stronger. I guess there’s ‘Thunder’, but with the delivery I’d argue it doesn’t quite earn being this magnanimous, and I honestly think Avril Lavigne’s ‘Sk8r Boy’ pulled it off better – and regardless of that, when the album chooses an increasingly dour ending, it makes things even worse!
Look, again, I don’t hate this, but if there’s a record that felt more formless and forgettable this year, I’m not sure I’ve heard it. I’d like to say that Imagine Dragons sounds lost on this album, looking for that emotional throughline or direction, but the truth is that they’ve got a cohesive sound now – it’s just thudding, overwrought, and not nearly tuneful enough to excuse lyrics this broadly sketched. For me, I’m thinking a 5/10 and only barely a recommendation for Imagine Dragons fans. Otherwise… you’re going to hear them on the radio, so you might as well learn to tolerate them, but if we’re looking for rock on the Hot 100 in 2017, we could all do better.