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Imagine Dragons – Origins Review

November 26, 2018 | Posted by David Hayter
Imagine Dragons
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Imagine Dragons – Origins Review  

1. Natural
2. Boomerang
3. Machine
4. Cool Out
5. Bad Liar
6. West Coast
7. Zero
8. Bullet in a Gun
9. Digital
10. Only
11. Stuck
12. Love

We live in a world of gamed algorithms, where Drake can land 20 simultaneous tracks on the Billboard 100 and decades old records crumble on a near monthly basis. In this context, the idea of being a chart topper has never meant less. Today a hit is the 7th track on an album that a fair-weather fan forgets to skip or the song that YouTube auto plays when your chosen video ends. Superstar status is so wrapped up with celebrity (either pop cultural or in cult circles) and clout chasing that discerning whose music is actually resonating with the world at large is harder than ever.

It has become so easy to dismiss the charts, that few have noticed just how market dominant Imagine Dragons have become. Once considered a flash in the pan, the Las Vegas four piece have proved to be astoundingly consistent hitmakers and – specifically – record sellers. Where once they were an awkward electro-pop-rock outlier, their fusion sound, heavy on bombast and laden with hooks, has now become the mainstream norm (the Fall Out Boys and Panic At The Discos of this world want to sound like Imagine Dragons, not the other way around). Debut album, Night Visions, was considered gimmicky upon release in 2012: it now feels like the template for modern chart success, with it’s frontloaded vocals and arena obsessed production.

In the years since their debut, Imagine Dragons have displayed a near craven obsession with the art of hitmaking. Dan Reynolds searches high and low for inspiration. If he hears a catchy hip hop, indie, folk, pop or dance cadence, he’ll imitate it in the quest for an ever more addictive hook. This might sound desperate on paper, but it feels genuine on Origins. Imagine Dragons are musical magpies fixated on attaining pop perfection. They assimilate new forms and structures with fearsome precision and startling regularity. Reynold’s vocal may be indistinct, but it remains capable of articulating white-boy-raggae and sweet-pie-pop as easily as it delivers desperation-soaked-emo-outpourings and electro-punk-insurgency.

At times the cut, copy, paste nature of the songwriting is unnerving. “Zero”, taken from the Ralph Breaks The Internet motion picture, is so eerily reminiscent of Kings Of Leon’s “The Bucket” that it feels neigh on sacrilegious. Of course, Imagine Dragons never quote from a single source, the Caleb Fallowhill impression soon gives way to a Taylor Swiftian pre-chorus and an imploring final verse that’s straight out of the Chris Martin playbook. It’s fitting that Imagine Dragons toy so readily with synths and electronics, because their music has the unmistakable air of the uncanny valley. It’s technically an original creation, but it never quite feels genuine. The lyrics prove more successful than the sonics, precisely because they are so unusual. As Reynolds succumbs to the misery of isolation, the band are busy pumping out a punchy and pep laden arrangement that feels like power pop steriods.

Still, while “Zero” is a deeply unsettling single, it remains one of bands best offerings (the noodling Strokes-like guitar work is particularly pleasing) and Reynolds’ lyrics feel refreshingly precise: “Let me tell you what it’s like to be a zero, let me show you what it’s like to feel, feel, like I’m good not enough for anything that’s real, real”. Sure, the doubling up of the last line of the rhyme might be cynical and cloying in the extreme, but the words are brutally bleak. Unfortunately, more often than not, Imagine Dragons shoot for profundity, but fall flat on their faces by endlessly regurgitating platitudes.

On “Bullet In A Gun” the juxtaposition is farcically overplayed. Flirting with suicide yet again, Reynolds expresses some of Origins’ gravest sentiments (“I’m high then I’m low, low/Stop then I go, go/Bipolar…my time will come, I promise that, pull the trigger back”), but this time the transparent attempts to land a hit single strip the song of any dignity. The repetitious rhymes are obnoxious (“Bullet In A Gun” directly follows “Zero” and mimics its mechanics) and worse, the track soon devolves towards warbling and blurting the word “gun” endlessly in attempt to lodge the singer’s every inflection in your cranium. The idea of representing highs and lows of the bipolar disorder by contrasting upbeat hooks with dark introspective lyricism is a good one, but this could be achieved without bending over backwards in search of catchiness. The result is not a unique insight, but music that sounds craven and desperate. “Bullet In A Gun”, sadly, does a disservice to both its worthy subject matter and the band’s best lyricism.

Still, it’s better to execute a good idea badly, than to vapidly mouth banalities in the hope of creating a transcendent moment. “Love” is not the first, nor it will not be the last attempt at a “heal the world” anthem. Imagine Dragons have stumbled upon a noble concept (“All we see is faces color, color/All the other races other, other/Why can’t you just be my brother, brother”), but they deliver it in such a suffocatingly saccharine manner, that “Love” is more likely to incite violence than achieve any kind of racial reconciliation. The chorus literally reiterates “La La Love” in increasingly gooey cadences, over and over and over again. The end product is heinous, a poor relation of The Black Eyed Peas breakout single “Where Is The Love?”

“Digital” is worse still: a drum and bass inspired brain fart that tackles the creative destruction of the Internet age. Between the wanky rock-break sonics that would have felt dated in 2001, there are a splattering of good lines as they assume to role of young Peter Thiel (“I want a new world without the order”) and enough blustering impetus to perhaps pass as a second rate Trent Reznor cut, but no more than that. Mercifully, where “Digital” strives for something profound and falls flat on its face, the jaunty arena-faux-folk of “West Coast” succeeds by limiting its ambitions. The chorus is pleasingly understated (by Imagine Dragons’ standards) as the song blends Mumford & Sons signature style with a distinctly American expansiveness. With the help of such stripped down sonics, you can almost feel the cool night air and the warmth of the campfire.

“Cool Out” is another solid effort: a subdued take on sparkle pop and R&B that employs a wonderfully odd rhythm. It’s a humane break up song for a couple whose relationship is destined to burn bright and quickly fade away. If the infuriating doubling up of hooks hasn’t drive you to distraction already, then “Boomerang”, another sweet farewell, may well hit its mark. The love songs (including the bombastic “Only”) prove far more affecting and tender than practically anything else on Origins. Reynolds suddenly sounds sincere and sympathetic, the hooks are still strong, but they don’t obliterate the heart and soul of the songs themselves. Why he chose to torpedo his political singles (like “Machine”) with such overbearingly leaden choruses, corny one-liners and aimless arena vamping is beyond me. Reynolds clearly appreciates restraint, but is unable to exercise it consistently.

On “Digital”, Imagine Dragons proudly proclaim that they “are the face of the future” and perhaps they are right. They are the products of the Internet age: where original ideas are hoovered up, spliced together, repackaged, fed through a thousand filters and spewed out in a half-cribbed hodge-podge, destined to be monetized by one giant monolithic corporation (or in this case band). Everything is lesser, everyone is poorer, but a select few are making out like bandits. This is perhaps an unfair characterization. Imagine Dragons are clearly skilled hitmakers as they relentlessly stack hook atop cloying hook until they are left with an ungodly inescapable end product. The tragedy is that, in their unrelenting quest to create an ever more addictive drug, Imagine Dragons negate the noble intention of own their lyricism: dark, complex and urgent issues are discussed on this album, but their meaning is stamped out by brain dead method.

The final score: review Poor
The 411
Origins’ love songs offer a glimpse of a more restrained and artful future for Imagine Dragons, but they are unfortunately overwhelmed by a craven and frankly obnoxious obsession with hit making. Fascinating subject matter is sacrificed at the alter of maxilmalism, as hook is stacked atop syrupy hook. The band are so determined to imbed Origins’ every syllable in your cranium that they have obliterated any subtlety, sincerity, intellect or charm the album may have possessed.

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Imagine Dragons, David Hayter