Album Review: Imagine Dragons - 'Origins'

Imagine Dragons - credit Nolan Knight.jpg

Imagine Dragons’ fourth album ‘Origins’ — mirror album to 2017’s ‘Evolve’, which resulted in the band being named Billboard’s ‘Biggest Band of 2017’ — is the most experimental collection of songs they’ve put out yet. That’s not to say it isn’t good: by taking risks, Imagine Dragons have propelled their sound far beyond what was previously possible. That can be seen just in the eclectic nature of their four singles; the ferocious and standout opening track ‘Natural’, the surprisingly uplifting ‘Zero’, the rebellious ‘Machine’ (the artwork of which is a modern mirroring of Pink Floyd’s ‘The Division Bell’) and the emotional ‘Bad Liar’. 

Speaking of the artwork, all five covers released so far have, in typical Imagine Dragons style, been astonishing. The industrially cybernetic ‘Natural’, full of shades of abyssal black and ominous reds, the familial, mid-twentieth century vibes of ‘Zero’, the modern rendition of one of the most iconic album covers found in ‘Machine’, the depressed and vulnerable skinless giant of ‘Bad Liar’ and the almost agrarian overarching hope of ‘Origins’ all manage to convey both the meanings of the songs and the mental states from which the songs were derived. Most notably, the skinless giant of ‘Bad Liar’, bare to the world, seems reflective of the rawness of a heart when broken, arguably reflective for Dan Reynolds’ recent divorce with his wife of seven years, Aja Volkman — and that’s just the artwork.

The album opens with lead single ‘Natural’, a phenomenally powerful song laden with grief and rage; lyrically, it manages to encompass both the pain faced after Reynolds’ divorce and the conflict between the Mormon Church, which he is part of, and the LGBT community, which Imagine Dragons have always been outspoken defenders of. Next up is ‘Boomerang’, an almost nostalgic track and a mirror image of ‘Natural’, discussing how hard it is for Reynolds to let go and move on; how, however he tries, he always comes back to the same thought: ‘just because it isn’t easy, doesn’t mean that it is wrong’. Admittedly slightly clichéd, as much of the album is at times, it doesn’t harm the song, which seems to also hark back to debut ‘Night Visions’. After comes recent single ‘Machine’, a rebellious protest song about standing out from the crowd and making a stand for what you think is right. The song, despite being arguably political in nature, can also be applied to countless facets of modern life; however, by being nondescript and appealing to as many ideologies as possible, it falls flat at times. ‘Not a part of your machine’, in particular, seems slightly ironic coming from one of the biggest bands on the planet. Nevertheless, ‘Machine’ is a strong song with a brilliant single cover. Then comes ‘Cool Out’, a rather peaceful and laid back depiction of the transience of relationships from the point of view of the rejector. It’s very easy to listen to, which is both a good and a bad thing. By being easy to listen to, with little to either praise or complain about, it becomes almost nondescript as a song. A good track, but not a memorable one. This is followed by ‘Bad Liar’, one of the strongest tracks on the album. On my first listen it was immediately reminiscent of ‘Demons’, only more produced and more in line with Imagine Dragons’ slightly poppier sound. It is emotionally stirring and manages to perfectly convey the pain, heartbreak and the sense of what could be described as betrayal. My one criticism for the track would be that the near over-producing of the song hides the rawness of the track’s lyricism, although that itself reflects society’s predisposition with stoicism and hiding feelings, especially with males.

Immediately after ‘Bad Liar’ comes ‘West Coast’, the closest thing the album has to an acoustic track, somewhere between The Lumineers and Mumford and Sons. It acts as the perfect transitional track after the pain of ‘Bad Liar’ and before the morbidly upbeat ‘Zero’, and is very much a feel-good track. ‘Zero’, then, manages to be a contrast to itself. Written for the upcoming ‘Ralph Breaks The Internet’, it is inherently family friendly sound wise, yet the lyrical hopelessness underneath belies a deeper sense of pain. It manages to combat both the mental health stigma which surrounds society, in terms of sharing feelings and sense of self-doubt or self-depreciation, whilst appealing to families with the happy facade of the music: which, in a way, is perfect, acting as a generationally educating track to try and defeat the stigma of stoicism in today’s culture.

Following on from ‘Zero’ comes ‘Bullet In A Gun’, a song which manages to combat both external and internal criticisms. It discusses the mental condition of bipolar disorder, of how life can flit uncontrollably from being ‘high’ to ‘low’ at the flip of a switch, whilst managing to fight critical pieces on Imagine Dragons, claiming that their music has changed to one focussing on generic mainstream arena music with the express aim of making money, resulting in Reynolds screaming ‘Sellout’ in an almost self-berating expression of rage. A great song, if perhaps not perfect.

Then comes the middle track of the album, ‘Digital’. I still can’t decide what I think of the track; it is certainly the most unique song on the album, and as a song is phenomenally different from their other releases. It’s electronic sound-wise, and goes from an almost monotonous drone to a screaming exclamation of ‘they been saying the same thing’ that seems fundamentally out of place from the band. Similarly, the message of wanting ‘a new world without the order’ seems out of place for the pop-rock giants. Ultimately, though, whether the song works or not it is irrelevant- it reflects a band pushing the boundaries of what is expected of them and therefore should be commended. ‘Only’, the following track, returns to the overarching theme of relationships, promising that ‘it’s just you and me.’ As a song, it isn’t necessarily unique (although it does feature a lovely harmonising courtesy of the band at the 2 minute mark), but it’s strangely catchy. It’s a song you could both dance to and tearfully sing to, which would both be wholly understandable. After is ‘Stuck’, a song about being unable to move on in a relationship: ‘you were my one’... ‘Time goes by and still I’m stuck on you’. The song is musically and lyrically simplistic but enables the band to show off their singing prowess; I’m not sure how it will translate to live if it is added to their setlist but it’s emotionally stirring. Then comes ‘Love’, a song about, well, love — love for one another in a society still somehow full of racism and sexism. The song is a heartfelt plea to governments and militias that ‘we don’t have to kill one another’, as we’re all part of the same human family. The song, full of Reynolds’ crooning and some impressive falsetto, is ultimately just upbeat, defending peace over conflict, and criticising how we as society just ‘put on our headphones’ and refuse to listen to what is happening around the world. Following ‘Love’ is ‘Birds’, a tremendous song, and not just because of the imagery. Birds have always been an icon employed by Imagine Dragons — for instance, in sophomore album ‘Smoke + Mirrors’ — as well as universal symbols for hope, love, life, death and everything between, depending on the bird. ‘Birds’ is an emotional and beautiful ballad-esque track with a soaring chorus, about the hope of a reunion between lovers. Although the birds might fly ‘in different directions’, ‘love will never die’. ‘The shadow cast is me’ croons Reynolds, evoking the struggle of living in someone’s shadow, and it seems to be almost an acceptance of the end of the marriage, after the previous tracks screaming in pain. 

Then comes the final two tracks: ‘Burn Out’ and ‘Real Life’. Burn out starts slow and, although it seems to gradually gain momentum as the song progresses, it ultimately remains the same slow song, one full of pathos and melancholy, desperately begging the listener not to ‘burn out’. The idea of events in life being ‘just another downpour’ pleads resilience and hope around weathering the bad that we all struggle through. You get the sense of a man beginning to drown under all the hardships he has suffered, yelling at himself to hold on and not give in to the pain. Finally comes ‘Real Life’, the final song on the album: a song about the inherent doubt in faith, both in religions and in each other, in addition to the horrifying acts that have taken place in recent years, referencing the multitude of gun violence with ‘the shots ring out’, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre ‘as the towers fall’ and the ‘Boston bombs’ of the Boston Marathon Bombings. It reflects a culture disillusioned, one so damaged that it has become almost accepting of the pain, which is the ‘real life’ that we live in. Reynolds apologised that he ‘cannot fix it’ or ‘make it stop’ — instead he does what he is able to help, through music. The song also seems to hark back to their earlier work in the anthemic chorus, and is one of the highlights of the fifteen songs. By making this the final song on the record, the band are able to create an album which spans the constant shift in sound and will appeal to old and new listeners alike.

The release of the album also inspired an ‘Origins experience’ in Las Vegas, an intimate performance from the band that was also live-streamed around the world. Most touchingly, the band managed to combine the old with the new: in the set, as well as debuting both ‘Machine’ and ‘Bad Liar’, the band brought back original members Andrew and Brittany Tolman for a touching performance of one of their earliest songs, ‘Destination’, for the first time since 2015, in addition to ‘Radioactive’ with both original members. 

The album isn’t perfect by any stretch. It has a lyrical reliance on clichés at times, the messages for many of the songs seem to be the same and therefore are unable to really say anything new, and few of the songs are intrinsically unique. Despite this, however, the album is a tremendous offering from the Las Vegas rockers, with tremendous offerings found especially in ‘Natural’, ‘Bad Liar’, ‘Zero’, ‘Boomerang’, ‘Birds’, and ‘Real Life’; moreover, the other songs are merely weaker and are by no means bad. Overall, a brilliant album and one well worth the listen.

Words by James O’Sullivan