Imagine Dragons Stay Immediate and Emotive on Fourth Album ‘Origins’
Las Vegas’ Imagine Dragons are currently the most streamed band in the world. For anyone who has heard their music, this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. The songs are immediate and accessible, with hooks and sonic stylings that target the lowest common denominator in popular music, and lyrics that explore universal concerns. Regarding the band’s fourth album, “Origins,” singer Dan Reynolds has commented, “When we create, we create with no boundaries, no rules. We find it thrilling to make music that feels different and new to us.” One can only speculate as to how exactly the latest recording strikes Reynolds and crew as “different and new.” If created with no rules, the new songs have still turned out remarkably formulaic. They rehash recurrent trends with alacrity, and capture the zeitgeist in the safest way conceivable. The result is a set of bangers that explore little new ground, but cater to the established proclivities, and will easily resonate with the band’s global fanbase, and keep the streams coming.
The opener and first single, “Natural” starts with an ambient overture of choirs soaked in reverb, over which Reynolds begins singing, and promptly sinks into soaring stadium fare. Everything swells to a sudden halt, whereupon he lets out a gut-wrenching scream, and a massive beat take off on cue. Everything is streamlined and supersized, from thundering snares and cinematic strings to Reynold’s impassioned howl. The chorus lyrics, “Natural / A beating heart of stone / You gotta be so cold / To make it in this world.” exalt callousness, with some irony. Many of the songs were inspired by Reynold’s divorce from singer Aja Volkman of indie rock band Nico Vega. While the two have recently began dating again, the album is largely a reaction to the drama of the split. “Boomerang” is about finding yourself always drawn back to a certain person, with the refrain, “You’re my boomerang / I’m letting you go.” The track follows a minimal, but insistent beat, with aural pads and jutting synth lines that give it a vaguely EDM feel. Like in the last song, the chorus erupts after a dramatic build-up to a climactic line. The infectious melodic simplicity of the refrain, and the bombast with which Reynolds bleats it, sound as if designed expressly to unite an arena of fans in concerted singalong. “Machine,” another single, features a massive distorted guitar riff and an unrelenting rhythm of kicks and handclaps. This time, the band goes a step further with the stadium dynamics, and enlists numerous voices, making for a grand chorus of singers. Reynolds addresses the importance of being an individual rather than bleating in chorus with the herd, singing, “I’ve been questioning / When you gonna see I’m not a part of your machine.”
“Cool Out” continues the recurring sonic patterns — a stark, driving backbeat, a ghostly choir backdrop, immersive synth washes, a propulsive guitar riff, and an instantly infectious hook. Lyrically, the song returns to the subject of “Boomerang,” with Reynolds explaining, “All the things that you detest in me / They keep you coming back for more,” but going on to demand, “Cool out, ’cause baby, I don’t think I’m the one for you.” The latest single, “Bad Liar” follows suit, and at this point, the sound is starting to grow a bit tired. On the other hand, the mood intensifies, swelling beyond the scale of the opening track. Co-written by Volkman upon her reconciliation with Reynolds, this song explores the idea of deluding oneself by ignoring one’s problems. Reynold sings, “Perfect paradise, tearin’ at the seams / I wish I could escape it… But I’m a bad liar.” Next, “West Coast” starts off a welcome change of pace, with a relatively breezy acoustic guitar backbone, over which Reynolds comes across as more intimate and melodious than usual, with his sonorous voice tone and slightly hushed delivery at times echoing Coldplay’s Chris Martin. The chorus brings more handclaps, a chanted pulse, and dreamy “Ooh ooh” backing vocals. On this song, Reynolds has taken a 180 from “Cool Out,” now pleading, “Oh, my love, please don’t give up.”
“Zero” nods to the eighties with its snare sounds and guitar tones, before gaudy detuned synth sounds in the chorus ground the song in the present. Reynolds has cited The Cure as an influence. His hooks, on songs like this one, owe much of their catchiness to his skillful use of repetition, and his ability to string together melodies so deeply rooted in contemporary trends that each one seems to recall a million other millenial pop hits. The song is about past feelings of inadequacy, with Reynold’s singing, “Let me tell you what it’s like to be a zero. On “Bullet In a Gun” he moves beyond insecurities, and expresses confidence, declaring, “But in the end, my time will come / Like a bullet in a gun.” It’s a standout track, an especially catchy tune with a tight groove. Eerie, high-pitched tones ring and vibrate in the background, and pitch-shifted vocal snippets are arranged into hypnotic patterns, creating a surreal overtone that gives the song more edge than others. “Digital” ventures slightly leftfield, with a ravy growling synth bass riff and a speedy breakbeat that slows to the band’s usual tempo upon the chorus, and then trudges along, conveying more of the typical anthemic lyrics. At once rebellious and empowering, the lyrics read, “We are the face of the future / We don’t wanna change, we just want to change everything.”
“Only” comes across somewhat like a rebuttal to “Bad Liar.” Whereas the latter urges oneself to stop living in a fantasy world, the former expresses a complacent wish to remain dreaming. The song is an instant hit, with an epic synth riff that hits harder than anything yet, and makes for an absolutely killer chorus. On “Stuck,” Reynold goes back to softer singing, with a gliding, mellow falsetto, then unleashes his emotion in a cathartic release over a dark, sprawling, resonant soundscape, when the chorus hits. Reynolds acknowledges that things haven’t progressed much past the circumstances of “Boomerang,” claiming “Time goes by and still I’m stuck on you.” Having come full circle, “Love,” another remarkably catchy number, ends the album on a high note, shrugging it all off and wishing for the best. Rhythm-shifting skittering hi hat patterns add an off-kilter swing to the beat, and fluid guitar figures dance between the bars. The chorus is another full choir sing-along, with each individual composite voice belting passionately.
It’s delightful that the relationship at the heart of the album has been resuscitated. It puts the music in the light of a restorative force, and confers a special value on the album. That aside, the chief attribute of the record is how effortlessly it manages to anchor emotions, on a large scale, by merely shuffling cliches. The music is, overall, very predictable — and it’s precisely this predictability to which it owes its broad appeal.
“Origins’ is available Nov. 9 on Apple Music.