Life. Death. Love. Loss. Hope. Despair. Joy. Depression.
Pop. Rock. Electronica. Rap. Alternative.
All these paradoxically colliding words and descriptors can only mean one thing: a new Imagine Dragons album.
Critics are skeptical whether this Las Vegas-based quartet’s third studio album, Evolve, really represents much of an evolution for these talented musical chameleons. There’s so much going on that some have questioned whether the band’s emotion-drenched altrocktronirappop approach actually succeeds at anything.
But a look at the charts—Evolve debuted at No. 1, the single “Thunder” is currently at No. 6 and climbing—demonstrates that Imagine Dragons is one of precious few pseudo-rock acts today with substantial mainstream appeal. Clearly the band’s fans don’t care much what critics say: Imagine Dragons’ achingly earnst exercises in angst continue to connect with its legion of listeners.
Much of Evolve addresses the struggle to keep love kindled amid the gales of life.
“Walking the Wire” expresses confidence and determination to stay faithful to a loved one: “We’re walking the wire, love/ … And we’ll take what comes, take what comes.” Frontman Dan Reynolds also vows faithfulness in these tough times (“And I’ll hold you close, I’ll stay the course/I promise you from up above/That we’ll take what comes”). Coldplay-esque “I’ll Make It Up to You” tries to atone for past failures (“I’m far from a perfect man/ … I’ll make it up to you”).
“I Don’t Know Why” seems to lament a once-vibrant relationship that’s buckling under pressure and deceit (“Trading the truth in for a lie/We were the essence of desire”). Later, though, Reynolds practically begs for renewal as he plaintively and repeatedly sings, “Tell me that you love me.” Similarly, “Start Over” asks over and over again for a second chance: “Can we start over?”
“Whatever It Takes” contrasts an adrenaline-fueled achiever’s drive to succeed no matter what (“I was born to run, I was born for this/ … ‘Cause I love the adrenaline in my veins”) with an almost apocalyptic world of struggle, failure and criticism (“Everybody circling, it’s vulturous/ … Everybody waiting for the fall of man/Everybody praying for the end of times”). As the song continues, it deals further with themes of insecurity and pride as well as the fact that we are all “half-diseased” and yet a “masterpiece” at the same time. The song concludes with a vague spiritual reference that hints at the soul’s life after death (“At least I go down to the grave and die happily/Leave the body of my soul to be a part of me”).
“Believer” wrestles with yet another paradox, how the pain we experience in life can result in faith (though what, exactly, the object of that belief might be doesn’t ever get spelled out amid opaque references to prayer and a “spirit up above”).
“Yesterday” deals with moving forward from the past’s mistakes (“Here’s to my future/Goodbye to yesterday”) and finally establishing a health identity (“All these years I’ve been searching/For who I’m supposed to be/ … I was right in front of me”). We hear more self-awareness as Reynolds admits, “‘Cause I’m a hostage to my pride/By my own volition/I’ve been a saint, I’ve been the truth, I’ve been the lie.”
Still more confessions of character flaws fill “Mouth of the River,” which seems to hint at baptism. “I’m self-destructive/And self-important/And I’m anxious/Oh, I’m self-assured/I’m nervous/ … With the hands of a sinner/Oh, the mouth of the river/ … And I am going under.” Elsewhere on the track Reynolds sings, “I want to live a life like that/Live the life of the faithful one/Wanna bow to the floor.”
“Rise Up” lurches back and forth between hope and despair (which I’ll say more about below). One verse admits that a struggling man realizes he hasn’t been fully present for much of his life (“I was there, but I was always leaving/I’ve been living, but I was never breathing”). We also hear another passing reference to prayer: “Like a prayer that only needs a reason/Like hunter waiting for the season.”
“Thunder” rumbles with ambition and independence as the band puts naysayers in their place, albeit …
… perhaps a bit arrogantly: “Now I’m smiling from the stage while/You’re clapping in the nose bleeds.”
One could interpret these lines in “Believer”—”Don’t you tell me what you think that I could be/I’m the one at the sail, I’m the master of my sea”—as either expressing healthy self-confidence or unhealthy independence and arrogance.
A confession of sorts in “Rise Up” admits to finding solace in the wrong things: “The more I stray, the less I fear/And the more I reach, the more I fade away.” And it seems the allure of darkness is strong in this track, too: “The darkness is right in front of me/Oh it’s calling out, and I won’t walk away.”
Lines on “I’ll Make It up to You” are mildly suggestive when we hear about a man trying to solve relationship problems (“You’re crying inside your bedroom/Baby, I know it’s not fair”) with a night of physical intimacy: “Lay with me for one more night/I promise you, I’ll make it right.”
One gets the feeling that Imagine Dragons lead singer Dan Reynolds might not be the easiest guy to work with or be married to. And a series of recent tweets from him confirms that his artistic path has been cratered by deep struggles with darkness and depression.
To his wife, he wrote, “I wear my heart on my sleeve. for better or worse. but d–n. my heart actually felt happy this year. thank you @RealAjaVolkman . you stuck with me throwing through years of dark depression. thank you baby. thanks for putting up with my angsty teenage self.”
And to Imagine Dragons’ fans he wrote, “thanks to the fans. thanks for hearing my voice and understanding it. I know some people will hear it as over exaggerated. it’s not. it’s me. I just. I just live hard. I love hard. I cry hard. I laugh hard. I want my life to be an explosion.”
In many ways, Imagine Dragons’ music is exactly that.
Some critics suggest that Reynolds’ “explosive” lyrics are too much: too earnest, too personal, too self-absorbed, too melodramatically conflicted. By Reynolds’ own admission, there’s a lot of drama here. But despite the struggles chronicled on Evolve, most of the time Reynolds and his band emerge from their emotional fog facing in the right direction.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.