Tracing Imagine Dragons’ career path up until now, it’s difficult to see what the appeal is anymore. Their 2014 debut Night Visions might’ve filled an easily-replaceable void left by the then-AWOL Killers, but its follow-up Smoke + Mirrors saw an already dimensionally-bankrupt radio-indie sound thinned out even more. The lead-up to Evolve didn’t look to have rectified that either, with early singles Believer and Thunder trading in virtually the exact same full-throttle but ultimately blasé sound that had already run its course a full album ago.
And really, if Smoke + Mirrors saw Imagine Dragons’ ascension begin to falter, Evolve has it heading for a tailspin. Because honestly, what sources of entertainment or excitement are here? Dan Reynolds wrenching his vocals into painful ranges? A weak mix that rips away any sort of edge or muscle? Songs that have no cogent direction and think that blaring out in every direction at once is a suitable alternative? The truth is in pretty much every aspect of album creation, Imagine Dragons excel at none, leaving Evolve as a deeply confused yet faceless album.
At least it’s got a competent direction that it wants to go in. It hinges on a more positive, optimistic outlook spurred on by Reynolds coming out of a period of depression exacerbated by their 2015 world tour, and in both the tone and content of tracks like Thunder and Start Over, that can definitely be felt and neatly translated to the sort of stadium-fillers that prioritise big swings over anything else that Imagine Dragons have become synonymous with. That’s where the first big problem comes in though, in that it’s so generalised and reliant on overdone “uplifting” sentiments that it’s just not compelling compared to an act that would actually pad this sort of thing out with actual detail. Whatever It Takes and Mouth Of The River at least have a bit more distinctive flavour in their lyrics, but with generic self-esteem / “we can make it better” anthems like Rise Up and Walking The Wire, the lack of imagination really begins to show, and with the word “thunder” repeated seventy-seven times on the titular track, laziness certainly can’t be ruled out of the writing.
Perhaps that’s why Imagine Dragons have yet again chosen to go down the route of such stiff, thunderous instrumentation, as a means of overcompensation; it can’t be because it sounds good, which it most certainly doesn’t. For a start, Reynolds’ vocals might be marginally more versatile and listenable – the half-rap on Whatever It Takes is actually pretty well executed, and there’s not another moment as sphincter-clenchingly uncomfortable here as Believer‘s chorus – but subtly still might as well be a foreign concept given how recklessly some of these notes are belted out. In a way, it matches the instrumentation, which takes another step towards revoking Imagine Dragons’ status as a rock band for good. Fragments of guitar do show up on Walking The Wire and Mouth Of The River, the lucky few that haven’t been steamrolled under the ponderous, rigid production that makes it difficult to extract a decent tune, let alone a guitar. Even when more melody does show up, it feels pulled entirely from much better songs, whether that’s Kanye West’s Black Skinhead on I Don’t Know Why, Paramore’s Forgiveness on I’ll Make It Up To You and an approximation of Toto’s Africa on Start Over. These are among this album’s better moments, but their effect can’t translate when so much is either so blocky that any fluidity is basically sidelined, or so lumbering and thunderous that Imagine Dragons have no idea what to do with it.
That said, the majority of Evolve feels like Imagine Dragons have no idea what they’re doing. This doesn’t feel like an evolution at all, instead drawing on a limited sound that seldom worked in the past and seldom works now. But with all the changes and growth they’ve undergone in the past couple of years as people, surely dredging this already empty well couldn’t have been their first creative impulse, right? Evolve feels like Imagine Dragons entering their shrewder stage, playing along with what’s done the best in the past instead of really pushing themselves to further as artists. They might be going with the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra, but what Imagine Dragons are playing with here had already fallen apart quite a while ago.
For fans of: X Ambassadors, AJR, Awolnation
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Evolve’ by Imagine Dragons is out now on Interscope Records.