Having a wildly popular debut album sounds like an amazing thing, and it is . . . until you have to produce the follow-up.
If in doubt, just look at Pearl Jam. The band’s 1992 hit album Ten still sees significant playtime on virtually every rock radio station in the country, and none of the band’s future efforts were ever as well-received. Imagine Dragons is in danger of being in exactly the same boat. Their 2012 album Night Visions was about as successful as Pearl Jam’s debut, with about as many big hits. They were launched to stardom with only one LP to show for it, bringing more pressure to Smoke + Mirrors than your average sophomore release.
In like manner, if you approach their second album expecting a repeat of their first, you’ll likely be disappointed. There’s no second ‘Radioactive,’ no second set of obvious radio hits just waiting to happen. But to use that as a means to say that the album is bad would be a mistake. It’s just different. It functions more as a cohesive album than a collection of singles. Not a lot of these songs will make it onto your summer playlist, but you’ll listen through this album before you’ll sit through all of 1989, and that’s a promise.
But make no mistake, the band hasn’t changed their sound; at least not significantly. Tracks like ‘Shots,’ ‘Trouble,’ and ‘Polaroid’ stay with the band’s mainstream-friendly blend of Coldplay with a more accessible Mumford and Sons that has so far defined their pop-rock sound. ‘Friction’ strives for a measure of the moodiness that defined ‘Radioactive,’ although the album’s title track does it far more successfully, and is likely the best song on the record. Imagine Dragons has succeeded in creating a separate work while remaining true to their original sound. This album may not be as good as their first, but as the catchy tunes of ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ and ‘Trouble’ remind you, that doesn’t mean this one isn’t good.
Even more encouraging is the group’s consistency in remaining both thought-provoking and clean. There are only two profanities on the entire record (both on ‘I Bet My Life’), and the complete absence of sexual connotations on the album is practically shocking. A rare event when reviewing secular albums, I can recommend keeping every song of this album if and when you choose to purchase it.
But it’s more than just the absence of filth. The songs on this record deal with topics ranging from impulse control to family troubles, even a song that’s practically an adaption of the book of Ecclesiastes (‘Gold’):
First comes the blessing of all that you’ve dreamed,
But then comes the curses of diamonds and rings.
Only at first did it have its appeal, but now you can’t tell the false from the real.
Who can you trust?
It’s nearly impossible to argue that the band’s second album is better than their first. But it’s equally impossible to argue that the album isn’t worthwhile. It may not make your greatest hits of 2015 list, but it gets right what too many artists skip over in the age of pick-and-choose: consistency.