Imagine Dragons – Mercury – Act 2

10 months after releasing their fifth studio album with an ominous “Part 1” subtitle, one of the planet’s most maligned bands are back with the sequel to what might have been their most unfortunate project yet. They haven’t been gone in the interim, scoring their first top 10 hit in half a decade by teaming up with League of Legends for “Enemy.” It’s a track which they’ve unceremoniously added to the very beginning of Part 1, immediately making it the best song on a project filled with some of the band’s most overambitious undertakings, worst lyrical platitudes and obnoxious, ear-splitting vocal performances from frontman Dan Reynolds. In comparison, anything listenable would be better, but Mercury – Act 2 might actually be the band’s best project since their debut – although that isn’t saying too much. With more bland and safe choices, some of the worst parts of the band don’t appear. Most thankfully, Reynolds takes a more reserved vocal approach as he addresses some more serious topics like the recent passing of some close friends and an accompanying fascination with death with surprising poignancy. Of course, those are only a couple moments in comparison to the avalanche of misguided musical decisions, uncomfortable mixing and overarching sense of complete bafflement that persists throughout.

Speaking of “Enemy,” I suppose the band was hoping listeners wouldn’t notice if their first single after scoring another hit, “Bones,” had almost the exact same melody and Reynolds’ typical quick lyrical delivery in the verses, clearly trying to replicate the success. After a melodramatic, pitched-down vocal effect meant to signal the call of the grim reaper, the chorus could have been borderline enjoyable – in a catchy, watered-down pop-rock song you’d hear in a car commercial kind of way – but the addition of a newly horrible technique of Recovery era Eminem-style screeching falsetto, something that crops in the back up a couple times here, drives it far into grating territory. “Symphony” turns up the cheese with an overextended shoehorned metaphor as Reynolds compares life to a symphony, complete with random instruments popping up in the back when they’re mentioned. The brightest-sounding song here, Reynolds is at full cringe potential as he drops some mouth trumpet and exuberant ad-libs of “no hope, no hope” onto the track while saying “you’re my constant tambourine” as a compliment. The early tracks “Sharks” and “I Don’t Like Myself” are some of the most tolerable Imagine Dragons tracks from a musical standpoint in years – and I’d even call “Sharks” a genuinely good song. Still, it’s an indictment of the band’s approach that the minimalism of the eerie bassline and handclaps creates so much more suspense and theatricality than throwing everything at the wall, Reynolds’ paranoid, breathy chorus sending shivers down spines as he speaks of a lurking demise. “I Don’t Like Myself” would have been equally catch if not for the most laughably surface-level address of depression yet and Reynolds leaning a little too hard into the dusty, old-school hip-hop percussion with pitched-down “uh” ad-libs and DJ scratches all while falling off the beat a couple times.

The album’s second quarter sees the band return to their regularly scheduled torture chamber. “Blur” features the album’s worst mix as the band seemingly tries to sound vintage, intentionally recording things on a horrible microphone while crunchy guitars and distortion fights with a standard rock beat, a trap beat and some drill-adjacent bass in the background, Reynolds’ screams in the chorus not helping things. “Higher” is the band’s return to their classic quiet-loud formula as Reynolds awkwardly emphasizes “ee” syllables over some EDM synth swells straight out of 2012. “Crushed” and “Take It Easy” feature some of the worst vocal performances on an Imagine Dragons album yet. “Crushed” sees them trying to focus in on a story, seemingly about controlling parents, but the lyrics are too vague to be certain. For how much Reynolds’ voice often overshoots the mark, it’s confounding how weak and off-key he sounds here, trying to reach an emotional breathy angle but failing to support the notes as he trails off in garbled, pained gasps. Still, it’s more enjoyable to listen to than what sounds like a swaying, drunken chorus of Dans on “Take It Easy,” an ode to agnosticism filled with cliches. The track “Waves” hits a new low, as Reynolds juxtaposes stories of his two friends’ deaths with a chorus about rolling with the punches that sounds like a parody of a song played in a dystopian, totalitarian society to keep citizens pacified and in line, with all emotions other than stupefied happiness suppressed. It all feels incredibly tasteless and insensitive.

Reynolds uncomfortably trying to convince himself he’s happy goes even further on the appropriately-titled “I’m Happy,” which is likely the least listenable song on the project. The mixing engineer clearly ignored the levels going far into the red zone as the track threatens to fall apart at the distorted seams, a rollicking drumline fighting to be heard underneath as Reynolds abruptly switches from platitudes of sadness to platitudes of happiness, droning “happeeeeeeee” in the new falsetto screech and repeatedly bellowing “teach them to love themselves” like a caveman. What sounds like a violin being torn apart at the end just makes it feel like they couldn’t possibly be doing anything other than trying to make bad music. Despite the nice-guy “Treat You Better” lyrics on “Ferris Wheel” and the return of cheery ad-libs about depression and the persistent falsetto on “Peace of Mind,” they’re two of the better tracks on the album, the former resolving into a nice sentiment about enduring love that makes you feel young and the latter stumbling upon one of the better hooks here and the most effective shift in energy from verse to chorus in Imagine Dragons history. Before a ballad-heavy outro, they drop a final obvious filler track in the wispy and highly unmemorable “Sirens.”

The final run of tracks sees Reynolds offering an emotional, piano-backed dedication to the three subjects he addressed the most over the course of the project: his devoted wife on “Tied,” a friend that passed away in an accident on “I Wish” and a friend that committed suicide on closer “They Don’t Know You Like I Do.” With improved, touching lyrical specificity, the tracks are effective poetry and impactful confessions featuring some uncomfortably real pain from Reynolds, but they’re long, sluggish and boring as pieces of music that once again feature some inconsistent vocal abilities. In between are “Continual,” another ballad featuring Snarky Puppy organist Cory Henry who infuses the track with some intriguing gospel energy, and “Younger,” the painfully generic nostalgia-fest that you’d be surprised the band hadn’t already made.

It’s easy to feel like an overwhelmingly negative critic when musicians go to extremes and never make anything good – from experimental to safe, from genre to genre – but like Drake’s recent output, that’s unfortunately what’s happening here. Maybe the key is finally finding Reynolds in a better, healthier place. Let’s hope for more tracks like “Sharks.”

Favourite Tracks: Sharks, Peace of Mind, Ferris Wheel

Least Favourite Track: I’m Happy

Score: 3/10

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