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Published February 18, 2015

Imagine Dragons has risen to the top of the musical world (See what I did there?) these past few years after the release of their debut album, Night Visions. It contained hits like “It’s Time”, “Radioactive”, and “Demons”. The band has been a mainstay on the radio and has gained plenty of critical acclaim, culminating in a Grammy win at the 56th Grammy Awards. Between touring and enjoying success, it’s kind of surprising that Imagine Dragons has had time to write, record, and promote a new album two and a half years after their debut. Smoke + Mirrors released on Tuesday and has since received a mixed critical reception.

At first, I had a very disappointed reaction, which has since changed, to the band’s sophomore effort. The band decided to drastically shake up it’s sound for Smoke + Mirrors — those head-banging drums from “Radioactive” are gone, as are the catchy lyrics that were present on most of Night Vision‘s tracks — leaving behind the electronic alt-rock sound of Night Visions. Smoke + Mirrors has songs that could belong to any number of genres. The album is very inconsistent in the sound of its tracks and also the quality of those tracks.

Smoke + Mirrors starts of with “Shots”, a track that doesn’t sound like anything in Imagine Dragons’ discography. It heavily incorporates synthesizers and features light vocals from frontman Dan Reynolds. “Shots” captures my opinion of the entire album in just one song — at first I didn’t like “Shots”, but after more listenings, the song and album have grown on me. The song itself has a catchy vibe to it that you can slightly sing along to. “Gold” is the next track and one of the album’s best. It has more of a “rock” feel to it and is good throughout. I would definitely say that “Shots” and “Gold” are two of the album’s best.

After those two, the album is wildly up and down. The titular track “Smoke and Mirrors” is wort listening to — it has a good, moody atmosphere and I like the lyrics — but the weird distortion of the vocals right before the chorus leave me at a pause. I wish I could edit out those few seconds because then I’d really love the song. “I’m So Sorry” sounds almost like country-rock and only for that reason is it memorable. The lyrics to “I’m So Sorry” are similar to “Shots” in the sense that they both have Reynolds asking for forgiveness (“Shots”: “I’m sorry for everything/Oh, everything I’ve done“).

“I Bet My Life” also has this theme; Reynolds has said that “I Bet My Life” is about the strained relationship between him and his parents. It was the first single and sounds exactly like what you’d expect from a lead single — the song sounds like it was written and recorded to be played on radios and during commercials. It’s not bad, but not exceptional either. I think of it like “It’s Time”: never terrible nor great songs that will be/have become massively popular. It’s catchy and practically forces you to sing along, but in the context of Imagine Dragons’ discography as a whole, it’s average.

I have enjoyed “Polaroid” from my first listen. It’s quiet and simple but keeps your attention and picks up pace towards the end. It reminds me of something that might have been on Night Visions.

Almost all of tracks 7-11 don’t stand out. “Friction” has no redeeming qualities. “It Comes Back To You” and “Trouble” aren’t bad, just a tad boring, ultimately forgetful. “Summer” is forgotten immediately after listening to it.

The only song from that section is possibly my favorite song from Smoke + Mirrors: “Dream”. Reynolds voice really shines and his emotion truly comes through. All of the background singing and instruments are spot-on and create a great atmosphere with that quiet, ever-present piano in the background. The songs builds up to a satisfying conclusion. I don’t know if “Dream” has the type of sound that would play well on the radio but I get the feeling it will become a staple during their live shows.

I always love it when albums end with some of its best songs and Smoke + Mirrors almost does that. “Hopeless Opus” isn’t bad, but it is immediately overshadowed by the final track, “The Fall”. It harkens back to Night Visions‘s concluding track, “Nothing Left To Say/Rocks”. The sound is great and I love the chorus. It’s six minutes long but never drags on or has any dull moments. Imagine Dragons definitely ended Smoke + Mirrors on a positive note.

Ultimately, having been a fan of Imagine Dragons for the past two years, I was disappointed at first with Smoke + Mirrors. The band really changed up their sound for this album, and I applaud them for that. Too often bands make albums that try too hard to emulate what they previously had success with. I give Imagine Dragons credit for experimenting and for still trying to find a sound that they love to produce. The more I listened to Smoke + Mirrors, the more I enjoyed it. There are a few bad songs, but, for the most part, Smoke + Mirrors is a solid effort. It never transcends into amazing, like Night Visions did, but never dips too low into utterly terrible. The best songs are only pretty good to great while the worst are slightly below average. I don’t think there’s a “Radioactive” or “Demons” on this album, but there are plenty of “eh, not bad” type of songs. It’s an album worth listening to and I think everyone will be able to find at least one song that they will be playing on repeat.

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