Smoke + Mirrors is the second full-length album from Imagine Dragons, released on February 17, 2015. "I Bet My Life" was the album's lead single, with "Gold" and "Shots" also being released as singles.
The first song on the album, "Shots", is an electro-indie-pop song that reminds me of artists like MGMT, Capital Cities, and CHVRCHES. A steady beat drives the song, with guitar and synths providing the bulk of the accompaniment. The song overall has good chord progressions and melody lines, but overall the sound just feels a bit flat. When the drums and bass join in the beginning, you don't get the feeling that a lead track should give, in my opinion. Also, Dan Reynolds's falsetto (used in various parts of the album) feels like it lacks energy.
When I first heard "Gold", I was not very receptive to the discordant samples used throughout the song. However, the song has grown on me. When the chorus starts with its repeated lyric "Who can you trust / When everything you touch turns to gold", I get a feeling similar to the chorus of "Radioactive" from Night Visions. The discordant samples still take a bit to get used to, and the odd rhythms are sometimes a bit weird, but overall I enjoy "Gold". In fact, I believe "Gold" would have worked much better as the album's lead track, instead of "Shots".
3. Smoke and Mirrors
"Smoke and Mirrors" is an interesting song. It feels very slow and heartfelt during the verse, reminding me instantly of "Demons". However, right before the chorus, there is an extremely out-of-place, glitchy, loud break where Reynolds screams the lyrics before returning immediately to a slower, quieter chorus. There are many instances in this album where Reynolds gives more rough, powerful lyrics, and one instance is during this chorus, when the lyric "I wanna believe" is sung louder than the rest of the soft chorus. Overall, though, "Smoke and Mirrors" is just an OK song, as it doesn't hit the same awesome levels as "Demons".
4. I'm So Sorry
Imagine Dragons get heavy with "I'm So Sorry". The beat is slow and in compound meter, giving the song a swung feel. The guitar line is very similar to those of Jack White or The Raconteurs (yes, I'm aware that's Jack White again). This song feels less produced than the rest of the album, and I enjoy it for that reason. It's a rough, hard rock track that not all may enjoy, but it's right up my alley, so I enjoy it. There's a soft bridge with just piano and Reynolds singing which actually brings the song down a bit - this part reminds me of Maroon 5 or John Legend. It sounds like a generic crooner ballad, and it's out of place in this hard rock tune.
5. I Bet My Life
Of all the songs on the album, "I Bet My Life" is probably the closest to the sound Imagine Dragons had on Night Visions. When I first heard the song, my attention instantly drew to the folk-rock verse which persists through the chorus. It reminds me a bit of Mumford & Sons or OneRepublic. This song also has a chorus that seems written for people to sing along, just like many of the tracks from Night Visions. It's no surprise why this was chosen as the first single from the album. Other than those similarities, the song is pretty good, too. I'm not totally a fan of the harmonies in the chorus, as they feel slightly discordant - kind of like "Gold".
If I had to guess the next single from Smoke + Mirrors, I'd say it will be "Polaroid". Honestly though, I'm not really a fan of it, for one main reason - it's essentially a hip-hop song. The name that comes to mind is Kendrick Lamar, but I don't listen to a lot of hip-hop so that could be totally wrong. As such, the beat is pretty minimal, with a soft bell melody playing in the background. Even though I could see "Polaroid" getting popular because of its hip-hop style, I'm not really a fan.
Now, don't laugh - this song reminds me of Disturbed. If you listen to the chorus (or even just the beginning of the song), you'll see what I mean. The chorus especially sounds a lot like a heavy metal song. Other than that, though, the instrumentation is pretty minimal. Reynolds's singing is pretty rough, like a metal song. At this point in the album, I started to wonder exactly what sound Imagine Dragons was going for in this album. While this song is heavy, I don't really enjoy it as much as "I'm So Sorry" because it's a bit too rough.
8. It Comes Back to You
"It Comes Back to You" is an indie-pop song through and through. The chorus especially reminds me of Maroon 5. Similarly to many pop songs, it doesn't feel very heartfelt but kind of flat. Again, Reynolds's falsetto in the chorus ends up draining the energy from the track. Overall, "It Comes Back to You" is very generic. It's not necessarily bad, just forgettable.
Of all the slower songs on Smoke + Mirrors, "Dream" is the best. It starts out with just piano and vocals, but a drum beat gets added before too long. The chorus is where Reynolds's vocals really shine; his voice gets pretty rough, but it feels pretty heartfelt and emotional. One complaint I'd have about the song is that the piano part is pretty much just chords with not much variation, but sometimes things don't need to be complicated to be good.
"Trouble" is a fast song led by acoustic guitar and vocals. It reminds me of newer Matchbox Twenty songs - especially "How Far We've Come". The synth-piano intro is kind of jarring, but it doesn't stick around long. The chorus features a repeated lyric "I want no trouble" which doesn't feel too genuine. Curiously, in the bridge, two acoustic guitars alternate playing soft chords, and the guitar playing on the off-beats feels out of time. "Trouble" is pretty good, but nothing spectacular.
"Summer" instantly opens with a guitar line and drum beat that sounds like it was taken right out of a Dave Matthews Band song. There are subtle samples being played underneath this to give it a different feel. The chorus features Reynolds's falsetto again; this time there's a bit more energy than before but it still feels a little subdued. However, the instrumentation lowers to match, so it works here. Again, like "Trouble", "Summer" isn't terribly phenomenal and is pretty easily forgotten.
12. Hopeless Opus
"Hopeless Opus" again features heavy hip-hop styling, featuring a slower beat, minimal instrumentation, and semi-rapped verse vocals. The chorus features a nice melody, with Reynolds singing somewhat nasally to give it a different sound. For some reason, I don't really like when the chorus features the lyric "My hopeless opus". The bridge takes the vocals from the first verse and breaks them up for another hip-hop style section, and this is followed by a pretty nice guitar solo. "Hopeless Opus" is just OK again; it's kind of forgettable and features hip-hop styling that I don't really like that much.
13. The Fall
Smoke + Mirrors ends with "The Fall". The chord progression does lend itself well to a 'last' song, and overall the album ends on a better note than it started on. However, I still don't think that "The Fall" is a phenomenal song. The second half of the chorus is especially weak; right where you expect a bunch of energy, the instrumentation almost completely disappears, and Reynolds's falsetto returns to sing a soft melody. The song is somewhat divided into two halves, and the second half is much better. The expected energy finally is released, and the song ends on a distinctly indie-rock feel.
Many of the songs from Smoke + Mirrors aren't bad by themselves, and I'm sure many of them will grow on me, like "Trouble" and "Shots". And I really enjoy "I'm So Sorry", "Gold", and "I Bet My Life". However, the album doesn't have much cohesion and doesn't feel like a complete unit. Whereas Night Visions had a distinct style, Smoke + Mirrors doesn't have one style you could apply to the whole thing. You've probably notices that the comparisons I drew were extremely varied, from MGMT to Disturbed to Dave Matthews to Jack White. One thing that Smoke + Mirrors made me realize was that, while Night Visions was a good album, it was pretty safe. That being said, I can appreciate how Imagine Dragons tried new things with Smoke + Mirrors and didn't take the easy way out. However, while the band hasn't really hit a sophomore slump, they have hit a bit of a sophomore identity crisis. I'm sure that the band will develop a more distinct style in the future, and if Smoke + Mirrors is any indication, it'll probably be a pretty good one. They just need to figure that out first.
Best Songs: "I Bet My Life", "Gold", "Dream"
Listen If You Like: It Won't Be Soon Before Long (Maroon 5), OneRepublic, indie pop/rock with a little bit of everything thrown in
Final Score: 6.5/10