Night Visions may have blown Imagine Dragons into the upper reaches of the stratosphere, largely on the heels of one unbelievably overplayed atomic-themed song, but a sizable chunk of music critics chided the young mega-stars for their safe, middling pop-rock approach, glossy production, and perceived lack of originality.
Naturally, for LP No. 2, ID aimed for more “stripped back … rock-oriented” songs – a common-enough progression for groups in their position, taken by artists from MGMT to NIN. These shots at earthier, heavier and more stylistically diverse music is evident throughout Smoke + Mirrors. But they’re more decoration than excursions – means of dressing up songs that, at their core, are cringingly stale and uninspired.
Opener “Shots” is unabashed dance-pop that hits cheese when aiming for cool, the trip-hop spaz of “Gold” falls back all too quickly on its big dull chorus, and ballad “It Comes Back to You” brings an even cleaner studio sheen to the sweeping moodiness of Coldplay.
At its best moments, Smoke + Mirrors does give Imagine Dragons something of their own identity – albeit one that often feels watered down and derivative. Both the power ballad “Dream” and heavy-rocker “I’m So Sorry” bear an uncanny resemblance to the post-grunge pandering of Shinedown, while the sound-scape chasing of “Summer” plays like a poor man’s Radiohead.
Maybe the group finds some ground worth staking as its own – the electro-folk romp of “I Bet My Life” and the nursery-rhyme rap of “Polaroid” might just suggest Imagine Dragons finding its own identity.
But even with so many dabbles in this style and that, most songs come off as safe-ish, middle-of-the-road arena alt-rock, by a band utterly determined to maintain its broad pop appeal. It’s certainly working – they’re playing First Niagara Center on June 24 – but true to its name, under all the flash and bombast, Smoke + Mirrors feels very short of substance indeed.