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It Is Time to Talk About Imagine Dragons

We are here to inform you that their new album is their best — or at least shrewdest — yet, and that one day this band might actually make sense

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

There you are, watching early June’s Murder on the Orient Express trailer, minding your own damn business, aching for a glimpse of the stern voluminousness of Kenneth Branagh’s mustache. The movie, based on Agatha Christie’s god-tier 1934 detective novel, is a prestige-adjacent experiment, with a November release date and a bonkers cast (Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Dame Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, and most importantly, Josh Gad). The vibe is tense, precise, old-fashioned, dignified. A Werther’s Original dipped in hypothetical Oscar gold. There’s been a murder. Here are your shady, alluring suspects. Also, we are on a train.

When a steady, eerily synthetic beat first creeps into the soundtrack, you think little of it. But then, just as Kenneth Branagh’s mustache gloriously appears, BOOSH. Would the madame care for some IMAGINE DRAGONS?

Every movie trailer needs a beloved pop song as a jarring emotional anchor — preferably a haunting, dolorous cover of an already-beloved pop song. But Imagine Dragon’s “Believer” — off the band’s third album, Evolve, out Friday — feels wildly out of time and place here, the blaring, all-caps falsetto chorus (“PAIN! / YOU MADE ME A / YOU MADE ME A BELIEVER!”) jolting you out of your prestige-adjacent reverie. The internet, which loves you, immediately suggested more appropriate songs for the trailer, including DMX’s “X Gon’ Give It to Ya” and Disturbed’s “Down With the Sickness.”

Imagine Dragons do this for a living: disrupt, jostle, invade, confuse. The Las Vegas hard rockers broke out in 2012 with their debut album, Night Visions, and in particular “Radioactive,” an ungodly monstrous hit in both the chart sense (it spent 87 weeks in the Billboard Hot 100, still the all-time record) and the sonic sense. (It’s a Mountain Dew–fueled power ballad with timely dubstep overtones.) Perhaps you recall the time they played a very loud and chaotic version of it at the 2014 Grammys — with an encore performance on Saturday Night Live — alongside Kendrick Lamar, in what remains the rapper’s third-worst collaboration overall. (Here is the second-worst, and here is the worst.)

Imagine Dragons tend to wear matching outfits and shout choruses in malevolent unison and whack giant drums, like a musclebound Jock Jams version of Arcade Fire. They sound gargantuan, and barely human; they are Transformers: The Movie: The Band. Frontman Dan Reynolds has a soulful sort of bro-ish croon, a tough-guy bellow that slides clumsily but confidently into a slick falsetto. But that’s only at first. When the chorus hits, his voice is multiplied a thousandfold, and every dial and fader on every mixing board within a 600-mile radius maxes out painfully, and a familiar, blaring, all-caps mania takes hold.

The simplest way to explain this is that the verses are sung by the mild-mannered guy who gets killed and becomes Robocop, whereas the choruses are just sung by Robocop. “Radioactive” worked like that; so did “I Bet My Life,” another stomp-and-clap epic from the band’s sophomore album, 2014’s Smoke + Mirrors, like a bonfire hoedown interrupted by Mechagodzilla, like Mumford and His 200 Extra-Large Sons.

The whiplash effect can be phenomenally unpleasant; it is also, most of the time, hugely effective. “Believer” is a big hit, current lodged in the top 20 of the Hot 100; the next rock band on that chart is Maroon 5, at no. 64, with that lousy song with Future on it. Imagine Dragons are not a terrible band, but they’re a terribly strange one, with a very of-their-time EDM-friendly stomp but an otherwise very lonely and context-free existence as one of the precious few young-ish rock bands the pop charts will remotely acknowledge. But whereas, say, Twenty One Pilots feel emphatically like the future, these guys feel like the future annihilating the past, the sound of “rock ’n’ roll” as a distinct sound going pop, going electronic, going extinct.

Fifteen years ago, these guys might’ve been the Killers, another Vegas band with unabashed pop-star aspirations and a glitzy, whooshy update of the Strokes’ then-ascendant Rock Is Back revisionism. Maybe 25 years ago, these guys definitely would’ve been Incubus, thinking-man’s headbangers with sci-fi overtones who indulged their own pop-star aspirations for a song or two. But in 2017, a band with Imagine Dragons’ skill set has way fewer options, a much narrower lane. It’s hard to tell which parts of their sound are genuine and heartfelt, and which parts are craven sops to a marketplace specifically designed to exclude them. It is impressive that they’re thriving in this environment, and also Extremely Suspicious.

All of which is to say that Evolve isn’t great by any means, but it’s awfully shrewd, and you might end up rooting for it if only because there’s nobody else to root for. It’s probably the band’s best album: It is definitely their slickest, their deftest, their shortest. “I Don’t Know Why” kicks things off with a Daft Punk sort of electro-pop strut, and a relatively subdued and semilascivious chorus — “I don’t know why / But I guess / It’s got somethin’ to do with you” — that you can imagine the Weeknd writing, or the Weeknd rejecting. But you also get Reynolds blaring, “DANNNGEROUS” in that shrill bazooka style, like he’s trying to clear the dance floor just so he can have it all to himself. Minutes later, he quasi-raps a bit on the morosely swaggering “Whatever It Takes,” but better that than the clone-army screeching.

The evolution part of Evolve is a slight tilt pop-ward: Producers include “Radioactive” cohort Alex Da Kid, former Lorde whisperer Joel Little, and the generally more diva-oriented Swedish duo Mattman & Robin. “Walking the Wire,” with a romantic and inspirational anthem that at least sands off the rough edges of all that bellowing/screeching, is the closest these guys have come to their own version of Katy Perry’s “Roar,” or OneRepublic’s “Counting Stars,” or what’s-her-name’s “Fight Song.” It raises an interesting question as to what “selling out” would even constitute here, with a rock band that realized from their first big hit that “rock band” wouldn’t be a viable career option for much longer. Their whole catalog is an exit strategy, a long-con crossover attempt, a sober acknowledgment that being the EDM era’s one token rock band involves lots of flexibility and compromise. It’s the sound of Man submitting to The Machine. You’ve heard worse.

There are songs on this album that remind me of Go West’s delightfully cheeseball 1990 Pretty Woman jam “King of Wishful Thinking”; there are songs that sound like the “Harlem Shake” meme trying to go legit, a squiggly little EDM earworm willing itself into a planet-munching monolith. “Thunder” is one of those: It’s a silly little song, a minimalist synth-pop goof that plays to neither this band’s strengths (fist-pumping macho-man ardor) nor its glaring weaknesses (most of the other stuff). Plenty of the tough guys who loved “Radioactive” will probably hate it, but placating tough guys is not a growth industry. It’s my favorite song Imagine Dragons have ever done, if only because it makes sense in context — because it suggests this band might find a context at all. It will most likely soundtrack its own movie trailer some day, perhaps something animated, starring a rabbit. That will make perfect sense. It will be the first time.