Verdict: “Smoke + Mirrors” might be one of the biggest release this year, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most underwhelming.
Though you’d never know it from the dozens of sold out venues and screaming fans across the country, Las Vegas’ Imagine Dragons sure have been in a pinch lately.
Still scurrying to live up to the promise of EPs released a half-decade ago, the band has also been saddled with the unenviable task of shaking off the muck and grime leveled at their critical reputation following their lackluster release in 2012. That release, “Night Visions,” resounded with the aplomb of a mold-encrusted fruit cake.
“Smoke + Mirrors,” then, has nearly incalculable consequence: it could raise this band back from the creative rut they’ve nose-dived into or it could bury them in an inescapable mound of critical disdain for years to come. Unfortunately for everyone involved, it’s sure seeming like it’s going to be latter.
Really, though, it’s not for a lack of effort. As Reynold’s voice soars out of orbit on the syrupy-ballad “Dream,” there’s clearly some level commitment to the affair, but it’s just so overwrought. Sure, this band was born for 10,000-seat stadiums, but this level of bombast doesn’t feel earned given the painfully pedestrian lyrical content submerged beneath his upper-register wail. The cynic among us just might lay claim that this vocal ringwork might be nothing more than a mirage to mask the deficiencies beneath the surface. He might be right.
“Gold,” the album’s second track, begins all alternative swagger with whistles floating above the mechanical percussion below just as the chorus slides into a dulled mix of noise. It’s a head-scratcher not only because this level of instrumentation seems at odds with the lethargic mess beneath but also because that ill-conceived mixture of distortion, samples and feedback utterly fails to energize the song which so desperately needs a shot in the arm.
From the totally inoffensive to the painfully boring, “Smoke + Mirrors” seems wholly dedicated to the band’s particular brand of arena pandering. This commitment extends into the album’s production techniques as well, ensuring that each instrument sounds squeaky clean, utterly perfect and perfectly massive. It’s all just far too flawless for a record so thoroughly rooted in deficiency as if some illuminati painter crafted a masterwork of slickly engineered deception to hide the reality that, for all of the bells and whistles, this is still just a dumb record. And it always will be. The weak distortion leading “I’m So Sorry” is neither meaty enough to inspire any visceral response nor interesting enough of a production choice to elicit more than a raised brow and frankly, a raised brow would be too generous a reaction.
As harsh as this has been, none of it is to completely disparage a band with obvious potential. If those first EPs taught us anything, it’s that you can’t count this band down. There’s the unshakable sense that, maybe given time and enough failure, this is a group that could consolidate its talent for something, if not special, then at least pretty good. Two lackluster full-lengths later though and it’s come down to a series of cruel jokes at the band’s expense – many of them warranted.
Titling their new record “Smoke + Mirrors” may have been an unintentional hilarity if not for the waves of thinly veiled distractions being just as rudimentary as the songwriting they’re meant to conceal. Somewhere, any one of these songs could have been rescued by a momentary wash of intrigue or some unexpected lyrical turn of phrase, but the help never comes. Perhaps Dan Reynolds and company should consider a post-release retitling of the record to reflect the album’s 12th song, “Hopeless Opus.” Now that would have been funny.