Imagine Dragons grow up to arrive as a band with a future legacy on their powerful third album.
Album Grade: B-
“Believer” is the most important song Imagine Dragons have yet to release. Let me say that again so the message is 100 percent clear – “Believer” is THE most important song Imagine Dragons have yet to release. Now, let’s clarify the reasons behind that statement.
Typically, by their third album, as is the case with “Evolve,” an act will work to establish long-term viability both as a creative and commercial entity. From a ‘hit-making’ point of view, there is a long-standing tendency for musicians to not survive past the third release for a variety of reasons.
A commonplace scenario involves the artist having a wildly successful debut album (like Imagine Dragon’s engaging “Night Visions” album in 2012) and a number of successful hit songs that capture a national audience.
Said artist is then prone to alter the formula on the second release to show variety and avoid the much dreaded “pigeonhole” effect that might define them forever. This album may have a lead-off single that does well, but not quite to the level of their initial “hits.” No other singles from this second album will chart at all.
This is what happened with Imagine Dragons’ 2015 “Smoke + Mirrors” and the initial single “I Bet My Life.”
At this point, it becomes very tricky. The band can either return to the initial sound that first brought them success, or they can continue a more “artistic” pursuit. Either way it’s a risky venture that has ended many promising careers. More often than not, the third album is released with a resounding thud and the act will vanish with few, if any, survivors. See: ‘Til Tuesday, Toni Childs, The Dream Academy, Audioslave, etc. (Aimee Mann made a decent post-‘Til Tuesday career of it, but I’m pretty sure the keyboard player now works at Guitar Center.)
So, this is where Imagine Dragons find themselves. After their single “Levitate” from the movie Passengers failed to ignite, Dragons wisely jettisoned the song to iTunes non-album purgatory, moved on, and released “Believer” as the proper lead-off to Evolve.
Not only did the track reach No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and sell nearly a million copies, but Minnesota Twins designated hitter Robbie Grossman selected it as his walk-up music, guaranteeing a summer-long play at Target Field throughout the 2017 season. Continued commercial viability? Check. (Thanks, Robbie!)
More importantly is what the song means. Upon album release, Dragons leader Dan Reynolds revealed a long history of clinical depression that he addresses forcefully throughout “Evolve.” “Believer” is much more than just a powerful, high charting hit, it was a call to arms for both Reynolds and the other three members of the band. It is also a strong, meaningful message of hope to, and for, their fans.
“Evolve” is neither a marked step forward into uncharted waters, nor a complete re-trenching of previous sounds. It is a solid, if occasionally thudding, rock record with insightful lyrics that are honest and raw.
“Walking The Wire” serves as a solid example. It begins with a gentle musical bed that focuses on the lyric before exploding into an uplifting power-chorus that gains energy throughout. It is a reflective rumination on triumphing over adversity that explores Reynolds’ and the band’s evolution over the depression and anxiety that occupied their previous work to arrive in a new and more stable environment. It works as both a summation and a positive look to the future.
A number of unexpected, quirky musical left turns are scattered throughout the album. “Rise Up” is a melodic tour de force that switches to a delightful off-kilter vocal passage in the bridge as Reynolds deftly switches from his usual shouting voice to a more subtle, slight-falsetto tone. His voice lightly flutters over the melody before returning to deliver the knock-out guttural ending. An unexpected twist that works.
What makes Imagine Dragons most interesting is their willingness to take calculated risks. “Yesterday” has a strange cabaret feel, while “I’ll Make It Up To You” pulses with the pure-pop energy of a mid-80s Phil Collins hit single. Mixing this diversity over an efficient 39 minutes shows an adventurously planned future. Here’s to hoping that they continue this evolution as artists.
Bottom Line: Imagine Dragons evolve and make the leap towards solidifying their long-term prospects with a strong third album.
By Dan Moir