Graded on a Curve: Imagine Dragons,
Evolve

I don’t know what I imagined I’d hear when I turned on Imagine Dragons’ 2017 magnum opus Evolve, but what I heard was worst than my most horrendous imaginings. I mean, I’d just been listening to Keith Emerson back with The Nice doing simply unspeakable things to Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages,” and this was worse. Far worse. I’d heard stories… terrifying rumors… about Imagine Dragons, but like Pol Pot’s Cambodia you just don’t know what unspeakable means until you’ve been there. My editor, the estimable Jon Meyers, calls them “Imagine Jagoffs.” It is appropriate. Evolve is the rare LP that is so bad as to evoke not mirth, but contempt.

Just the other day I heard “Whatever It Takes” at the gym and immediately thought, “Wow, these guys are such empty vessels they’re actually proud to release a song that is not only thoughtless but the opposite of thought, whatever that opposite is.” Don’t get me wrong; I have no aesthetic bias per se against pure pop product. That said, I must insist it signify something other than its own obvious desire to move units, and “Whatever It Takes” as well as every other song on Evolve is a carefully engineered exercise in moving units.

Evolve is one of those albums designed to do only one thing, namely go platinum by any means necessary. It has, of course, gone platinum. These guys may have only one big idea–they certainly didn’t put any into their songs–but they have stayed true to that one big idea, which goes something like if we’re going to be a successful corporation we’re going to have to have all of the personality of a corporation, and make the homogenized likes of Mumford and Sons sound like bona fide fucking soul groups. They have succeeded to the extent that Evolve has about as much soul as your average snuff film and far less personality–at least a snuff film evokes human emotions such as pity and terror.

How bad is this shit? LP opener “I Don’t Know Why” begins with the lines, “We could be strangers in the night/We could be passing in the shadows/We couldn’t be closer if we tried/When we’re caught in the headlights/We could be faces in the crowd/We could be passing in the shadows/Upping the risk of being found/When we’re caught in the headlights.” I quote this string of vapid cliches to illustrate Imagine Dragon’s utter paucity of ideas and lack of a single actual insight, whether it be lyrical or musical. Theirs is a world of borrowed non-ideas where neither imagination nor dragons has any place. Evolve is less an album than a black hole sucking up dim stars in the form of other, only slightly better, bands’ paltry (but sellable) musical tropes. The lines I quote above also point to a more sinister fact. Namely, that Imagine Dragons are not just determined to be unoriginal; they are determined to be unoriginal at great length. Very few bands are prepared to say so much while saying exactly nothing.

And the same goes for the musical bombast packed into every over-produced song on Evolve. Imagine Dragons go for a BIG sound in a BIG way so as to make you throw your hands into the air on the dance floor not because they want to spread the joy but because they want to spread like a virus. They employ every piece of vocal gimmickry in the studio armamentarium, and their drummer sounds like Godzilla. But they employ such tricks to no good aesthetic end–they’re there because the Billboard Charts dictate they should be there. Only on “Yesterday”–and “Yesterday” is the only reason I’m not giving this album an F–do they create a soundscape that verges on saying something other than “buy me.” It combines Queen-like vocal theatrics with a blocky beat and doesn’t make my ears want to commit hari-kari and doesn’t sound like a carefully calculated attempt to sound like everything else I might hear while in the gym. Will I ever listen to it again? No. I can’t imagine ever listening to Imagine Dragons again, and want only to imagine a world where Imagine Dragons are but a figment of some mad man’s imagination.

As for specific songs, I only have the heart (or courage) to talk about a few. “I’ll Make It Up to You” is a cold-blooded Coldplay rip and pure pablum for puerile people, and frankly I can’t imagine how Imagine Dragons will ever make it up to me, I really don’t. “Rise Up” goes from the bombastic anthemic to utter wimpification as fast you can blink your ears, and I’ll say this for Dan Reynolds: The way he mewls the words, “I’m bursting like the 4th of July/So color me and blow me away/I’m broken in the prime of my life/So embrace it and leave me to stray” like Chris Martin curling into a pathetic little ball is so wretchedly “sensitive and fey” I crack up every time I listen. And speaking of Chris Martin of Coldplay his ghost haunts virtually every song on Evolve, and I can’t help but think Reynolds’ sounding like him is not pure happenstance but just another cold-blooded corporate decision–Coldplay sells records thanks to Chris Martin, ergo I should probably be a Chris Martin clone. And speaking of Coldplay and clones, ID’s guitarist never misses the opportunity to nick his riffs from Coldplay’s guitarist. Everyone in this band is a clone. They’re clones by choice and I can only imagine they’re proud of the fact.

My friend Alyse Aronstamn Wolfard tempered a positive comment about Imagine Dragons she made on Facebook by adding, “I do most of my company’s advertising, and from a professional standpoint I appreciate how they’ve been able to turn out such advertiser-friendly music that doesn’t, imho, totally suck, for a commercial.” She makes a valid point. Indeed, she has hit upon my bottom line feeling about Imagine Dragons; namely, that they’re not in the business of writing songs, they’re in the business of writing commercials. Commercials for what you ask? Commercials for songs that just happen to be their songs would be my reply. I know it’s rather confusing. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the concept myself.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
D-

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