Angst and indie rock go together like peanut butter and jelly. And Imagine Dragons has unpacked plenty of it—angst, that is—in its first four albums.
But you don’t have to listen long here to get a sense that the angst on tap in Mercury – Act 1 is deeply personal and very real. The very first lines of the first song, “My Life,” set the stage for a journey in brokenness and, at times, self-loathing. “Can I wish on a star for another life?” frontman Dan Reynolds wonders. “’Cause it feels like I’m all on my own tonight.”
Then he adds, “I’m trying hard to be somebody else/I’m finding it hard to love myself/I’ve wanted to be somebody new/But that is impossible to do.”
Typically in our entertainment reviews, we try to categorize content as either positive or problematic. And I’ll be doing that again in just a moment. Still, with lyrics like these, different listeners will hear them in different ways. Some might find confessions like the ones above depressing or hopeless-sounding. Others might find relief in the expression of emotions that, while painful, need to see the light of day if there’s hope for moving forward.
And, frankly, that’s pretty consistently what we’ve heard from Imagine Dragons from the beginning. It might just be a bit more personal, a bit more painful this time around.
If there’s a lyric on the album that functions as its most succinct thesis statement, it’s this one: “It’s OK to be not OK.” Later on in “It’s OK,” Reynolds walks further down that path of self-acceptance: “I don’t want this body, I don’t want this voice/I don’t wanna be here, but I guess I have no choice/ … Breath in deep, just one day at a time/’Cause it’s OK to be out of your mind.”
And you know when I classify lines like those as positive that this is going to be an emotionally heavy album.
“Dull Knives” juxtaposes outward smiles and inner terror: “Inside I’m a mess/But I don’t let it show/I’m just hanging on/But you never know/I smile all day/And cry through the night/Won’t someone please save my life?”
“Lonely” talks about the social strategies people use to stay metaphorically invisible: “Sometimes I smile to keep things easy/I hide in corners, hope that no one sees me.” But beneath that, there’s a longing to be known: “Have mercy (I can get a little lonely)/On me (Sometimes I can get a little)/And keep me company (I can get a little lonely).”
“Wrecked” struggles to process terrible grief. “Oh, I’m a wreck without you here/Yeah, I’m a wreck since you’ve been gone.” But Reynolds also clings to positive memories (“I remember the words that you said/Remember the life you led/ … I’ll see you again, my loved one.”
“Monday” looks outward and promises a struggling friend, “When you’re down on your luck/ … I’m here for you,” and personifies Monday as the day that offers a fresh start each week.
The song “#1” seems to be about believing in ourselves even when we make mistakes. Hope and despair coexist on “Easy Come Easy Go” as the song’s narrator struggles to make sense of a loved one’s withering battle with cancer: “Remember when you got sick, cancer of the bone/Everyone at school while you sitting at home/ … Yeah, you know that you are our hero/You were there when I was a zero/And I swear I’ll make things right before the long night/ … I just need to let it go … waitin’ on a miracle.”
“One Day” looks forward to making someone happy in the future.
In “My Life,” Reynolds talks about his own substance abuse in a way that, while confessional, ultimately seems to have a helpless and hopeless feel to it: “I find myself a user/Oh, I wake every day with addictions to feed/They all call me a friend, but I’ll never be freed/From the face of a faithless future.”
More confessions in “Giants” can feel pretty dark, even though I don’t think the band is trying to glorify addictive and self-destructive behavior. “Take a hit of anything/To escape it all, I’m suffocating/ … Sometimes I wanna hurt me.” Other lyrics in the song alternately seem to reference both being high and going through painful withdrawal from drugs.
“Cutthroat” seems to be about an internal battle with the darker part of one’s self. Still, some lines on the song could be heard out of context in problematic ways, such as this one: “Only one of us gon’ make it out alive, and it’s not you.”
Mercury – Act 1 isn’t easy to listen to. As the band draws upon a wide variety of sonic influences (alternately sounding at times like Mumford and Sons, Coldplay and Twenty One Pilots, among others), it unpacks a lot of hurt. Sometimes–maybe most of the time–there’s not much of a redemptive corner being turned here. Reynolds and Co. long for meaning, but they’re not sure it’s there.
Do songs like the ones we find here make for cathartic listening or simply reinforce depressive tendencies? I suspect the answer will depend on the listener in question. But the younger the fan, the more parents may want to step in and guide that conversation. Or perhaps decide that the darkness that Imagine Dragons flies through here may not be worth the angst-filled trip for those who tend to see the glass half-empty already.
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.