Imagine Dragons Might Actually Be Good: A Critical Reevaluation

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Describing the way Imagine Dragons sounds is basically encapsulating popular music as a whole in 2018. Hip-hop runs in its veins, like it does in most aspects of our culture, dictating the way frontman Dan Reynolds delivers his verses even if his rhythms feels more like subconscious embedding than an overt choice. There are vague nods to electronic music that give the songs a chaotic texture while imbuing them with futuristic, or at least contemporary, flare. There’s pop music gloss that makes their sound a perfect fit for streaming, radio, and approximately 25% of all movie trailers released in the last five years. And, of course, there is the rock music core, that the band holds onto like the last bastions on a dying planet, entrenched in a fight where relevance and audience are hardly guaranteed.

And the weirdest part? They’re winning.

The first time I heard an Imagine Dragons song, though, my impression was quite different. I was driving to pick up a friend from LAX and “Demons” came on the radio. Imagine Dragons has already had a string of hits that somehow had escaped my immediate knowledge, but “Demons” immediately struck me as something that I rarely heard in commercial music. It sounded, well, Christian. Maybe it was the titular reference and bits about “kingdom come,” “sinners,” and “hell.” Naturally, as someone who stopped going to church regularly in 8th grade, I hated it.

Clearly, I wasn’t alone. Even from their earliest brushes with success, perhaps no contemporary musical project has been reviled to such an extent as Imagine Dragons. For every meekly flattering (though masterfully written) semi-defense of Imagine Dragons there are countless forums, threads, and reviews that would gleefully cast the band into its own smoldering breath.

Their debut album, 2012’s Night Visions, didn’t receive a ton of mainstream reviews despite the fact that the band already had a hit on the Billboard Hot 100 (“It’s Time”) ahead of its release and wound up selling a whopping 83,000 first week sales, making it the best selling debut since 2006. But when the band followed it up with 2015’s Smoke + Mirrors, the critics showed up with their guns blazing. In his two-star review for Rolling Stone, Jon Dolan said “being mildly inventive isn’t the same as being good, and Imagine Dragons hone all that eclectic energy into dreary anthems that aren’t much better than the flaming turds Creed used to light up on our collective doorstep back in the Nineties.” The Guardian called it “flat-packed stadium pop at its most anonymous” while The Los Angeles Times noted that “There are moments where Imagine Dragons sounds so downright lame… that you simply can’t believe Reynolds is working to impress anyone but himself.”

By the time last year’s Evolve was released, mild disgust turned to straight viciousness, even as the band desperately had to prove that they could regain the status they achieved with Night Visions. Holding a staggeringly low 47 on Metacritic, Evolve was met with The Guardian noting “they remain faceless — something which is only likely to continue as they channel an on-trend, electronic sound for this third outing.”

In an even bigger statement, Pitchfork doesn’t even have an artist page for the band, only writing about them on the off-chance they collaborate with Kendrick Lamar or Josh Homme goes on a profanity-laced tirade about them in concert. This is the way that much of music media treats Imagine Dragons, as either a punchline or a nuisance they can ignore, like a housefly that harmlessly buzzes around for a day or two before retreating from memory.

But like many of the biggest pop stars throughout history, critical ambivalence and derision has not really hurt Imagine Dragons. In a time when Twenty One Pilots and Portugal, The Man are their only alternative rock contemporaries crossing over onto the pop charts, Imagine Dragons are the only ones yet that have done it across multiple albums. Over the course of just six years, they’ve become the torchbearers for a genre that is essentially on life support. But many forget that even Imagine Dragons bungled their big follow-up. After “It’s Time,” “Radioactive,” and “Demons” all made major impression on the Hot 100, their sophomore album had to be considered a flop despite debuting at No. 1 and going platinum.

“I Bet My Life” certainly made a mark in both the pop and rock worlds, but the band did not seem nearly as omnipresent and the album ultimately felt a bit more scattered in their sound. Evolve has rebounded tremendously, with “Believer,” “Thunder,” and “Whatever It Takes” nearly matching the ubiquity of the three singles from their debut effort. This renewed success came at a time when another lackluster effort would have certainly doomed the band to become more of a historical footnote. Instead, Imagine Dragons became one of the biggest bands in the world.

But while their success is impressive, much like being “mildly inventive,” it does not mean Imagine Dragons are good. And neither does their influence. Still, it feels important to note just how much of the Imagine Dragons sound has taken over their genre. It’s impossible to turn on the radio without hearing at least a shadow of the band, be it Bishop Briggs or X Ambassadors or Bastille or Judah And The Lion. Even bands that had emerged long before them, like Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco, have taken up the Imagine Dragons torch, leaning into chanting arena-ready choruses and tacking on indulgent percussion.

Theirs is the kind of influence that’s easy to deride, but it still fits firmly in the alternative narrative. Funnily enough, Imagine Dragons’ first hit was a direct descendant of the new Americana spawned by Mumford & Sons’ and their many stomp-clap imitators, and their triumph remains the best counterargument to anyone who claims that the Mumfords don’t have a lasting pop music footprint. A little mandolin goes a long way.

Or, here’s another way to look at it. In my twenty-five years or so of following alternative rock, I’ve thought virtually every new trend was the worst. Whether it was the pop-punk of Blink-182 and the rap-rock fusion that nu-metal provided to supplant grunge, or the Radiohead-lite of Coldplay, or the sequenced indie rock for stadiums of The Killers, or the Hot Topic screamo of My Chemical Romance, or the glow-in-the-dark bravado of Muse, or the old-timey schtick of the Mumfords — every new trend in the genre felt decidedly worse than the one that preceded it. But likewise, time found my stance on each softening, some of them took a decade to make me an actual fan, and in other areas, it just took admitting to an undisputable jam or two. Whatever is next for alternative rock will surely be worse than Imagine Dragons, and will surely make more sense the longer we have to live with it. It’s easy to root for our small independent music to be innovative because the stakes are so low, but when innovations are made at the largest scale, warts and all, the masses have a much harder time keeping pace.

And all of these changes in popular aesthetic, though discounted by critics at the time, find their place. Because, honestly, young people don’t really care what a bunch of older dudes think is cool. And these kids grow up and let the popular music of their youth shine through in interesting ways. Whether its Grimes or Oneohtrix Point Never, both will have you listening to nu-metal with an ear that wouldn’t have been possible at the time, mining songs for inspiration that had long been cast off as a passing fad. Imagine Dragons tends to draw comparisons in terms of quality to more forgotten alt-music ripples, like Nickleback or Creed, but that both discounts the impact that Imagine Dragons are making across genres and finds a false equivalency in bands who neither innovated nor established their own identity. Nickleback and Creed essentially sounded like music that was popular a decade before, and never achieved the sheer volume of crossover hits that Imagine Dragons has.

Perhaps the most interesting wrinkle in the Imagine Dragons narrative comes from a recently released documentary produced by Reynolds, called Believer. The film delves into Reynolds’ past and his Mormon religion (which puts a pin on why their music always glistened with Sunday school devoutness), and focuses on his attempts to reform the church’s stance on homosexuality. Reynolds himself is not gay, but his empathy and commitment to action in the name of church members who have sunk into depression or killed themselves is inspiring. Notably, the doc chronicles the establishment of Loveloud Festival in support of LGBT acceptance in the Mormon church, whose second installment is scheduled to take place on July 28.

It’s easy to question some of the other Mormon stances, be it on abortion or on race, but Reynolds is undoubtedly pushing the church to better places. In terms of rock stars using their celebrity and influence to literally help people, there aren’t many examples of a band illuminating a subject that was so little discussed previously. As Reynolds says in the doc, “If I’m passive, I feel like I am standing for bigotry… I’m not just going to walk away and let a house on fire burn, I’d rather do all that I can with this lucky spot that I’ve been put in to help put out a fire.”

This cause doesn’t feel remotely feel like a PR stunt, but it does ultimately round out the public perception of the band as an arena-level artist that is here to stay. Take last week’s new offering, “Natural,” which opens with Gregorian harmonies, is buoyed by a Reynolds’ sharp ear for cadence and melody in the verse, and offers a chorus that could easily soundtrack commercials for the upcoming college football season on ESPN. It debuted at No. 18 on the Billboard alternative charts, a remarkably high bow that would have received more attention if Twenty One Pilots’ own new song wasn’t breaking records simultaneously with its own ascent.

But the fact that Imagine Dragons are out here dropping hit singles like it’s no problem, all while still on an album cycle for their last effort, brings to mind artists like Drake or Cardi B, who have also recently enjoyed such an era of the golden touch. When critics discuss Imagine Dragons, it’s always using comparisons to Arcade Fire, Coldplay and the Mumfords, but really, the band works so well in 2018 not because of its influences but because of the utilitarian nature for their music. Sports, films, television, parties, clubs, poolside, headphones, shopping malls; there aren’t many places where Imagine Dragons don’t feel appropriate, where their bombastic nature can’t enhance the experience. And there isn’t another rock band in recent history that can say that. Because of their scope, the next generation will likely come to revere their music as the soundtrack for an entire era of experiences.

At the very least, that kind of impact is worthy of respect, that (by all reports) a group of genuinely nice people who rip through their live shows, and have a backpack full of bangers, are out here reaping success that is 100% deserved. It might not mean I won’t turn off “Thunder” when it comes on for the thousandth time on the radio (unless it’s the Khalid mashup that summed up 2017 music better than anything else), but when I do, it’s not with disgust or confusion as to why the band has remained in the public eye. Instead, it’s with the knowledge that the band is here to stay, important for both their current musical space and for the future, and will be discussed more seriously in the years, and decades, to come.

Evolve is out now via KIDinaKORNER/Interscope Records. Get it here. The band’s Loveloud Festival takes place in Salt Lake City this weekend.