If there’s one band who’ve been a tremendous detriment to the way that modern rock is perceived and executed above anything else, it’s Imagine Dragons. While they may have started as a fairly modest indie-pop band with ideas way above their station, their ballooning into mainstream juggernauts and subsequent extolling of the virtues of synthesising every element of sound has plagued alternative music for far too long, not only inspiring half-hearted pretenders like AJR and lovelytheband to try and forge something in a similar vein, but shunting formerly promising – or at least distinct – bands into their own lane, where any trace of a rock identity would be sloughed off on a whim. And what’s equally the most infuriating and hilarious thing about all of it is how Imagine Dragons have found themselves hitting increasingly diminished returns, both in terms of quality and simply how many people care anymore. The fact that this album is coming just over a year after their last is the most telling thing in this situation; Evolution utterly flopped beyond the inexplicable popularity of Believer and Thunder, so perhaps simply flooding the market with yet another album which, from most of the early singles, looks to be just as lumpen and incompetent is the best way to go. At least Natural is a good song, but Origins desperately needs more than that if Imagine Dragons have any hope of reclaiming their reputation which, frankly, is in tatters at the minute.
And to their credit, there are moments where you can really tell that Imagine Dragons are making steps in the right direction here, but the fact that they do only come in moments and feel as tentative as they do makes this a tremendously deflating listen. And while that’s par for the course for this band at the minute, it’s not as if they don’t have the material to do something more, particularly when Origins is primarily focused on the recent turmoil within vocalist Dan Reynolds’ life, both in his recent divorce from his wife of seven years and the general climate of hostility in the wider world. Obviously it’s the former that’s the more compelling pivot here; while nothing packs quite as much punch as Natural that sees Reynolds weathering the blows that come his way and becoming a sterner, more study individual as a result, there’s a wistful sentimentality to Boomerang and Bad Liar as he mourns his broken relationship, and Only has the yearning qualities that makes the archetypical “one that got away” scenario feel a bit more earned (certainly more than Stuck’s tipping into clingy, overly cloying territory, anyway). But overall, these are the exceptions to Imagine Dragons’ long-established rules for songwriting, specifically to focus solely on palatable universality with the occasional clever line or bit of imagery shrouded by fluff that thinks it’s far more poignant than it actually is. It’s certainly the case when they go for social commentary painted with the broadest strokes imaginable like Machine and Digital, but it’s Love that represents the greatest fallacy when it comes to Imagine Dragons’ perceived self-worth, namely how their own beliefs of profundity amount to little more than rattling off tropes that feel increasingly tired and threadbare. In this case, it’s the notion that everyone should stop fighting and just come together to love each other, but between the basic California imagery for happiness on West Coast or the entry-level self-deprecation on the hook of Zero (a track that regularly fares far better with some lyrical choices in the verses that are at least solid), it feels rushed and lazy, and aiming for the lowest common denominator of what can reasonably be expected from a rock band.
Of course, whether Imagine Dragons themselves even believe they’re a rock band at this point is up for debate, as Origins may just be their clumsiest, most mechanical attempt at instrumentation to date, and for a band with a bad reputation for that exact thing across all of their albums, it’s not a good sign. It’s not as if that can’t work at all – the snap-and-shatter beat of Natural and (against practically all odds) the lifting of the drop from The Chainsmokers’ Roses on Only hit a spot where their more staccato progressions actually benefit them – but Origins is easily at its best when embracing a light, languid brand of ‘80-inspired pop like on Cool Out and Bad Liar, which (apart from the trap snares which could certainly be toned down) have a bit more natural flow that’s a lot easier to like. But just like the lyrics, Origins only ever works in pieces, though with it being sonically even more of a scattershot mess, it’s arguably even worse in this regard. It’s honestly stunning how some of these ideas actually made it though any sort of quality control; the rattling clank of Machine and the misty, underdeveloped R&B of Bullet In A Gun (complete with dated shouts that feel just as flaccid) don’t have nearly enough to convince anyone that they sound good, and in the latter case especially, it feels like a first draft of a song that most likely wouldn’t have worked in any capacity anyway. In between all that there’s the watery folk-pop of West Coast or the sugary synthpop of Zero that aren’t unworkable, but they don’t contribute towards establishing any sort of consistency. Perhaps even more so that other Imagine Dragons albums, Origins is all over the map, and the erratic shifts into territory that either has such little effort put into it or just sounds plain bad make fostering any sort of compelling listen an impossibility.
It’s not like that’s anything new for Imagine Dragons though, and as they continue to press on with no regard for where to take their sound next, those increasing diminishing returns seem less and less possible, and more and more probable. For a band to be as big as they are, becoming a genuine mainstream force and hitting on their fourth album, and not knowing what they’re actually doing is perhaps less an indictment on them, and more on the marketers who’ve been distanced from rock for so long that they have no idea what will fly anymore, and think that barely-functional wrecks like this will suffice. That’s not to say that Imagine Dragons are completely without fault though; they still made this with some fleeting hopes that it would be more successful than their last album, but with the continual lack of knowledge of how to make this even slightly workable or listenable, that’s never going to happen.
For fans of: X Ambassadors, Bastille, Awolnation
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Origins’ by Imagine Dragons is out now on KIDinaKORNER / Interscope Records.