For a while, it seemed like Imagine Dragons was the only truly commercially viable “rock” act left around. As we see a resurgence of guitar-based music in the mainstream, you’d think that a band that has been so misguided for so many album cycles might be feeling a little inspired and make some of their best music yet. In fact, against all odds, the exact opposite has happened. With quite a few options to choose from, this might just be Imagine Dragons’ worst album yet. It’s clear that frontman Dan Reynolds has been going through a tough time, as many of the tracks on this project see him lyrically addressing some family tragedies and personal struggles with addiction. Truly, his brief periods of lyrical honesty and vulnerability are the only redeemable aspect the project has to offer. Unfortunately, at all other times he demonstrates his pain by revving the cursed Imagine Dragons formula to its absolute limits, making the quiet parts quieter and the loud parts horrifically louder, the mix working overtime to try to keep up with it all and falling into a state of disarray as Reynolds’ grating tone stomps around like a T-Rex. When Reynolds isn’t blowing his vocal cords out, the band’s inspirational platitudes are at an all-time high, as some cloying bright tones back up the message to defeat your demons by simply coming together and enjoying a nice sunny day. For all the exaggerated hate the band gets, you almost forget how justifiable they can make it until you hit the play button. At least something comedically off-putting is better than something boring.
As is tradition, the first notes of opening track “My Life” are minimal and contemplative, Reynolds offering a simplistic nursery rhyme of a melody in his soothing tone. Before you know it, things start building up slowly, Reynolds offers some embarrassing and off-key vocal flips as he preps to enter another vocal dimension, and then the chorus hits like a diesel truck. While this highly obnoxious formula is nothing new for the band, it’s even worse this time because the instrumental behind them is so minimal as Reynolds elects to open his album with what is clearly meant to be a reflective, confessional track about regretting his forays into addiction where he takes a step back. Still, he can’t help himself from yelling in our collective ears with no instrumental to back him up. The remainder of the track is just as laughable, as the instrumental switches abruptly a couple times – first into nothing but strings to wring out some cheap emotional payoff, and then smacking us in the face with a jarring jumpscare of a crushingly loud synth that vanishes as quickly as it arrives.
The structure of the track “Lonely” honestly isn’t that bad by the band’s standards, but what sounds like an improvisatory studio session at the beginning of the track, as Reynolds smacks something nearby for percussion and mumbles a melody in a weak falsetto, is brought back and played underneath the chorus like a buzzing mosquito distracting from the music at hand, leading up to a shameless dad pun serving as the climax. Single “Wrecked” is an easy choice for the album’s best track – it’s the only one where it feels like Reynolds’ screams are both earned and believable. A track about losing a family member to cancer, it still goes through the band’s motions of softly delivered vocals shifting suddenly into a sludge of guitars, but the lyrical specificity as he reminisces and some decent harmonies make this the only listenable moment.
There are three tracks on this project that are so incredibly misconceived that the idea of them getting through whatever kind of vetting process Imagine Dragons have is stunning, but they get into this kind of Cats: The Movie territory where I’m almost thankful for their existence so I can understand a new level of just how bad music can possibly get. The first of those three is “Monday.” The song, on the surface, is a dated, dubstep-fuelled track about how Monday is the best day of the week and “so underrated.” Reynolds loves the fresh start of Monday so much that he compares it to his wife. In a breathy, staccato flow to show just how cool and hip he believes this beat from 2012 is, Reynolds doesn’t yell on this track, but he does build up to an outro featuring abundantly layered, off-key harmonies, percussive falsetto “doo-doo-doos” and a piercing, frantic synth tone that sounds like they’re playing one of those YouTube videos where you speed a song up to the point where it only lasts 3 seconds.
The next, “Giants,” has a chorus where, incredibly, each line of it is a nightmare for an entirely different reason. We move from a mechanically delivered line that disregards rhythm and overshoots a measure, to an unironic use of the word “boom,” to a strangely operatic delivery, to an unnecessarily melodramatic one, to a messy, drunken-sounding series of “la-las,” to an ear-splitting scream. The band applies distortion onto his screams as they get even louder at the track’s climax, even looping pieces of it as they try their hardest to be obnoxious. “Dull Knives” genuinely made me throw off my headphones in discomfort – it’s the most extreme usage of their quiet-loud formula ever, Reynolds pushing his voice to disturbing new heights and flipping into hilarious near-whispered passages and flimsy falsetto.
Quite a few tracks in the project’s middle lean into the kind of robotic list of inspirational buzzwords that somehow still fire people up despite having heard it all before. They’re the kind of tracks you can already hear a choir of triple amputees or Imagine Dragons concert survivors singing on some future season of America’s Got Talent. “#1” is a track about self-love filled with every cliché under the sun, as the band play it safe and Reynolds sounds like he’s reading off of a teleprompter, all of the soul and musicality sucked out of the room as he delivers these words in a self-serious, stuttered vocal as if delivering some kind of profound wisdom. “It’s Ok” is a maddeningly joyful and upbeat track where Imagine Dragons try to address the struggles of the LGBTQ+ community and come off even worse than Logic’s patronizing suicide anthem. Minimizing things with more lyrical cliches and summing it all up with an anthemic refrain of the apparently mind-blowing notion that “it’s okay to be not okay,” the band skips down the street to ecstatic group vocals and sunny guitar twangs.
“Easy Come Easy Go,” on the other hand, should have been a more legitimately profound moment as Reynolds offers some more detailed, specific lyrics remembering being there during a former friend’s illness as he laments growing apart from social circles during the pandemic, but he intersperses them with what are either off-putting, shoehorned references to his own songs or lyrics so lazy he doesn’t realize he’s used them before. Combined with the bland soundscape and yet another weakly delivered falsetto chorus – I suppose it’s better than the other extreme kind of chorus here – it’s another moment that falls entirely flat. Lead single “Follow You” sounds decent on the surface with a trap beat and a catchy melody, but through headphones the mix is so off that it feels like another obnoxiously upbeat moment of enduring Reynolds’ hopelessly volatile performances.
When Genius annotates an Imagine Dragons lyric with two exclamation points, you know it’s never going to be good. That’s exactly what happens on the track “Cutthroat,” which is the band’s attempt at a bro-approved machismo-laden stadium chant as Reynolds viciously yells threats at his foe, building up to an unhinged scream of “TRYYYY MEEEEEEEE” over what sounds like uncomfortably distorted strings. Pitchfork already pointed the hilarity of the song leading into “No Time for Toxic People” better than I ever could, as Reynolds accidentally illuminates his hypocrisy while trying to pander to just about everybody, singing starry-eyed refrains about the beautiful day outside over bouncy piano. The album mercifully closes with “One Day,” another Live Laugh Love poster of a song that will inevitably be played by a scores of white girls at the beach on their ukuleles as Reynolds “dweeeee-da-da-das” himself through another hackneyed anthem about finding happiness in nature.
The scariest thing about this album is the fact that it’s called “Act 1.” Whatever second part of this is coming, please, Daniel, for my sanity, take as long as you want. With any luck, the already diminished commercial performance of this project is a sign of things to come and I won’t have to listen to it. Still – for anyone looking for the musical equivalent of a beloved B-film, this is for you.
Favourite Tracks: Wrecked, Follow You
Least Favourite Track: Dull Knives