Pop-rock band Imagine Dragons, 2 years removed from their sophomore album Smoke + Mirrors which failed to spawn any successful singles, hit back at the radio airwaves with their third full-length studio album, Evolve. Frontman Dan Reynolds has stated that the album’s title refers to a shift in their sound, which certainly hasn’t occurred to such a degree that I’d name an album after it.
These tracks are following the same formula that made “Radioactive” and “Demons” big hits. However, their newfound reliance on established pop producers, rather than producing their instrumentals themselves, sees them making an evolution of sorts to become more similar to modern-day Maroon 5. Ultimately, outside of a select few tracks which crackle with the energy that drew people to the band in the first place, Evolve is painfully generic and feels like a lifeless shell of the band.
In the past, very little outside influence went into an Imagine Dragons album, the writing and production credits all being almost entirely handled by the members of the band. While they retain primary writing credit on each, they produce none of the tracks here, essentially restricting the non-Reynolds band members to play the simple pop charts that are handed to them, maybe trading something like a real drumset for an electronic one in the process. They bring in producers like Mattman & Robin, who take about half of the tracks here and are perhaps best known for producing DNCE’s “Cake By The Ocean”, which can tell you a lot about the direction Imagine Dragons are heading in here. Alex Da Kid (X Ambassadors, Skylar Grey) and Joel Little (Lorde, Broods), who is really too good for this, appear briefly as well.
Imagine Dragons have proven in the past that their driving, almost tribal rhythms are essential to their best tracks and this continues here, as the highlights of the project all have a strong focus on this. “Whatever It Takes”, Joel Little’s track, sees Reynolds delivering impressively quick vocals before an infectious beat and rapidly cascading synths kick in and the song explodes into its chorus. The song sees them bring back some semblance of musicality instead of blindly following the same structure of steadily building up to an overly dramatic chorus.
“Believer”, as well, is an above-average single for the band and it is easy to see why their mainstream viability has returned along with it. The drum pattern and the delivery of vocals in rapid triplets exude a kind of animalistic energy, and for once, that huge chorus is actually warranted. But after these two tracks, the album takes a huge nosedive.
Now that Imagine Dragons have swung in more of a pop direction than ever before, Reynolds’ powerful voice of a rock frontman sounds quite out of place at times. Opening track “I Don’t Know Why” features perhaps his loudest growls over a pretty synth pattern in the pre-chorus. It is far more than the track demands and crosses over into headache-inducing territory.
Adherence to pop formulas is not a good look for them, and their decreased input into the creative process is quite evidence. A band like Maroon 5 always had underlying pop sensibilities, but at least Imagine Dragons were a little bit edgier for a commercially successful group. Many of these tracks feel like they are leftovers for pop artists’ albums, with cookie-cutter pop choruses copy and pasted onto each track. “Rise Up” literally feels like exactly this has happened. The abrupt shift in energy as the chorus comes back in after an uncharacteristically quiet bridge, Reynolds unexpectedly yelling in your ear, is so misplaced I broke out laughing in public.
These producers have boiled down the previous works of the band to their most basic defining aspects and spread them as thin as The Chainsmokers do, catering to the more oblivious members of their audience. The album is only 39 minutes long, but it feels like it takes much longer to get through as you endure copy after copy of the same song, essentially a very watered-down “Demons”.
“Yesterday” is a contender for the worst song I’ve heard all year, as the tempo slows down to a snail’s pace even as the massive drumbeats and Reynolds’ overblown vocal deliveries persist.
Imagine Dragons were never the most innovative or exciting act, but at least their artistic vision was clear. Now that they have lost that strong sense of selfhood, more and more voices guiding them on which way to go, the result just feels like lowest-common-denominator pablum for people who can’t quite make the jump to real rock music. This is not an evolution, but a reversion to a more primitive form.
Favourite Tracks: Whatever It Takes, Believer, I’ll Make It Up To You
Least Favourite Track: Yesterday