Not so long ago it was practically impossible to be an American media consumer without hearing “Radioactive.” At a time when earnest shout-along rock music was becoming a dominant force in pop, Imagine Dragons’ breakthrough hit was everywhere: on the radio, in TV commercials, even transposed into pep rally fare by marching bands — which frankly was and is a preferable iteration of the song, maintaining its triumphal swagger while dispensing with the suffocating self-seriousness that suffuses this band’s entire genre. “Radioactive” even earned the Las Vegas anthem-slingers the right to share the stage with Kendrick Lamar at the 2014 Grammys, where they mashed it up with “m.A.A.d. city” to Taylor Swift’s delight.
After “Radioactive” peaked at #3, Imagine Dragons’ debut album Night Visions spawned another top-10 hit in “Demons.” Rock bands rarely land singles in the top 10 anymore, so for Imagine Dragons to chart there twice was no small feat. (It’s even more impressive when you consider their initial strategy was ripping off cheerfully whiny indie-pop duo Matt And Kim.) A large factor in their world-conquering success stemmed from crossing over to pop radio, so when they returned with Smoke + Mirrors in 2015 and none of its songs made an impact outside modern rock and “alternative” stations [insert rant about the bloated corpse of alternative rock radio], it seemed like Imagine Dragons’ time as full-fledged superstars might be giving way to more of a sustainable niche career and therefore those of us who find them insufferable might be able to avoid them without trying too hard.
With that in mind, I am sorry to be the one telling you Imagine Dragons are back in a big way. Evolve, their third album, debuts at #2 this week with 147,000 equivalent units and 109,000 in album sales. Those are the largest first-week numbers for a rock band since Metallica’s Hardwired… To Self-Destruct last fall, just 2,000 units shy of beating DJ Khaled’s Grateful for #1. And given that the vast majority of Khaled’s units derive from streaming and track sales, by at least one important metric (actual album sales) Imagine Dragons have the most popular album in America. But Smoke + Mirrors, the album that didn’t really impact outside Imagine Dragons’ bubble, debuted at #1 as well; the real indicator of this band’s resurgence is the arrival of their first top-10 hit since 2013.
“Believer,” which rises to #6 this week, is the product of a collaboration between Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds and Justin Tranter, the former Semi Precious Weapons singer known for his potent songwriting partnership with Julia Michaels, with production by Swedish hitmakers Mattman & Robin. Like “Radioactive,” it’s powered by thundering, electronics-tinged drums and eerie minor-key guitar chords, building from quietly intense verses into a gargantuan chorus howled to the rooftops by Reynolds and his men. Just as “Radioactive” used vague language about revolution to create an apocalyptic rallying cry for the cause of your choice, “Believer” spins a cryptic story about Reynolds’ battle with depression (personified in the video by a boxing match with Dolph Lundgren) into a catchall catharsis. And like “Radioactive,” “Believer” is basically undeniable as a work of punchy pop craftsmanship, even if its stylistic affectations make you cringe — which means it’s one of those songs you will hate yourself for absentmindedly humming, a condition that will undoubtedly befall you if you press play.
The involvement of those pop industry professionals, not just on “Believer” but throughout the album, should tip you off that the very pointedly titled Evolve is Imagine Dragons’ bid to win back the mainstream audience that mostly sat their last album out. This is not the first time Imagine Dragons have worked with hired hands from the pop side of the tracks — “Radioactive” itself was produced by Alex da Kid, known for his work on B.o.B and Hayley Williams’ “Airplanes” and Eminem and Rihanna’s “Love The Way You Lie,” who also handles a few tracks here — but as with the latest from fellow paragons of wounded masculinity Linkin Park, the advances toward the middle are more overt this time around. They don’t want the mainstream to even imagine dragging on without them.
Thus, they’ve borrowed tricks from many of the other rock-leaning outfits in the pop market. There is a frequent reminiscence to OneRepublic, the faceless and extremely beige project fronted by industry songwriting pro Ryan Tedder, particularly on opening one-two punch “I Don’t Know Why” and “Whatever It Takes.” On “I’ll Make It Up To You,” Reynolds does his best Chris Martin impression, and it’s convincing enough that I did a little double-take the first time I heard it. “Yesterday” lunges into the gap created by Fun.’s absence, while “Mouth Of The River” takes a page from the ’80s worship of Jack Antonoff’s post-Fun. project Bleachers. On “Start Over” the Reagan-era revivalism flashes over to the neon intercontinental sounds of Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel. Surprisingly the shimmering electronic ballad “Dancing In The Dark” (not a Bruce Springsteen cover) closes the album on a genuinely experimental note, yet it’s the album’s two most willfully middling selections that reveal its true nature.
Imagine Dragons have framed Evolve as the sound of Reynolds overcoming his demons, which has always been this band’s M.O. (note that he told Rolling Stone “Radioactive” was “about conjuring and rising above human weakness” and that the next single was called, uh, “Demons”). They’re spinning this one as particularly positive statement of perseverance, though, which may be why “Walking The Wire” and “Rise Up” basically sound like the secular version of Christian worship music, a genre often promoted as a positive alternative. I’ve written before about how, as a Christian who is repulsed by the inflexible culture that has sprung up alongside Christianity, so much worship music rubs me the wrong way:
That’s why so much of what’s marketed as Christian music today bothers me: It holds unswervingly to a certain cultural context in a way that not only isn’t mandated in the Bible but actually goes against that call to flexibility. There’s a massive worship music industry built around U2-style swells designed to whip people up into an emotional frenzy. (When approached about joining a worship band during his time at The King’s College in New York, a friend of mine was asked outright if he could play like the Edge.) If that’s your speed, fine, but does all worship music have to sound like the same genre — the same song, even — echoing blithely and breathlessly into infinity?
A similar ethos powers Evolve, never mind that Reynolds never directly addresses his Mormon background or defines “believer” beyond someone with a positive outlook on life. Even the songs that do not explicitly adopt the tropes of worship music — its reverent yet exultant tone, its softly strummed guitars and emotive keyboard swells, its hands-in-the-air emotionalism — are marked by inspirational platitudes and a whitebread aesthetic so unyielding that it overpowers the band’s occasional flashes of real creativity. This is not meant as a reflection on Reynolds’ political beliefs (given his support for the LGBTQ community, he probably leans left), but I find it fitting that at a time when much of the American church has sold its soul to a political savior who could not resemble Jesus Christ less if he sprouted devil horns, the bestselling album in the country is basically doing worship music minus God. It is not a sound likely to make America great again, but it has certainly succeeded in making Imagine Dragons popular again.
As mentioned above, DJ Khaled’s Grateful debuts at #1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart this week with 149,000 equivalent units, though intriguingly only about 50,000 of those units were traditional album sales. It follows last year’s Major Key as Khaled’s second #1 album. Imagine Dragons, meanwhile, roar back with 147,000 units for #2-debuting Evolve, including 109,000 in traditional sales. Per Billboard, it’s the best first-week sales for a rock album since Metallica’s Hardwired… To Self-Destruct racked up 282,000 half a year ago.
After Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. at #3 comes Prince’s reissued Purple Rain at #4 thanks to 52,000 units/48,000 sales. Then comes 2 Chainz’s Pretty Girls Like Trap Music at #5. Friends of Stereogum 311 enter at #6 with 39,000 units/37,000 sales for MOSAIC. Top-10 mainstays Ed Sheeran, Drake, and Bruno Mars are at 7-8-9. And the Moana soundtrack returns to #10, probably because the film just hit Netflix. (As a parent of a two-year-old, I can affirm that the Moana soundtrack has been #1 in my household for many months.)
Over on the Hot 100 singles chart, Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber’s “Despacito” is #1 for an eighth straight week. With DJ Khaled, Bieber, Quavo, Chance The Rapper, and Lil Wayne’s “I’m The One” holding at #2 for a third straight week, Bieber becomes the first artist since Iggy Azalea in 2014 to appear on the top two songs in America for three weeks in a row, Billboard reports. And since Khaled’s “Wild Thoughts” featuring Rihanna and Bryson Tiller rises to #3, Bieber and Khaled become the first two artists to hold two songs in the top 3 simultaneously.
After former chart-toppers “That’s What I Like” by Bruno Mars at #4 and “Shape Of You” by Ed Sheeran at #5 comes the aforementioned Imagine Dragons single “Believer” at #6 — their third top-10 single and first since 2013 as well as the first rock song to hit the top 10 this year. Rounding out the top 10 are Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.,” Post Malone and Quavo’s “Congratulations,” Future’s “Mask Off,” and the Chainsmokers and Coldplay’s “Something Just Like This,” the last of which gives the Chainsmokers a 61st straight week with a song in the top 10 — still eight weeks shy of Katy Perry’s record 69-week run.
Kesha – “Praying”
After everything Kesha has been through, it would have been surprising for her to come back with one of her trademark party jams. I hope she has not abandoned that sound entirely, but if she has, “Praying” suggests she has strong potential as a balladeer too. The way she enunciates “I’m proud of who I am” contains volumes; really her entire darting, weaving vocal performance here is strong. And when the song builds to its big climax, all the time it took to get there pays off.
Calvin Harris – “Cash Out” (Feat. ScHoolboy Q, PARTYNEXTDOOR, & D.R.A.M.)
One of the best songs on the Calvin Harris pop posse cut compendium Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 is this delightfully fizzy convergence of Q’s hard-nosed rap, Party’s neo-R&B smoothness, and whatever you call those vapors that spill from D.R.A.M.’s irresistible cauldron of hip-hop singsong. It is a fucking blast, and I highly recommend it.
Foster The People – “Loyal Like Sid & Nancy”
I am not completely sold on Foster The People’s new dark electronic sound, but it’s certainly better than the absolute blandness they were foisting on us post-“Pumped Up Kicks.” I am, however, completely sold on everything that happens after the three-minute mark, from the mournful violin to the eerie synths.
Zedd & Liam Payne – “Get Low”
Zedd survived EDM’s transition from hard-hitting club tracks to easy listening beach jams better than most, and although his collab with Payne is not one of his more outstanding creations, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a hit.
OneRepublic – “Truth To Power”
Did not expect a meaningful act of protest from the group described above as “faceless and extremely beige,” but life is full of surprises.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- In a FADER cover story, Hayley Williams revealed she briefly left Paramore in 2015 to treat depression. [FADER]
- Calvin Harris discussed his Twitter rant in the wake of his breakup with Taylor Swift: “I was protecting what I see as my one talent in the world being belittled. It felt like things were piling on top of me and that was when I snapped.” [GQ]
- Nick Jonas rescues the Rock in the new Jumanji trailer. [Instagram]
- Logic launched his own label, Elysium Records. [HNHH]
- Britney Spears’ arrival in Jerusalem was apparently a mob scene, leading to such chaos that the pop star cancelled a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. [Vulture]
- Lady Gaga got paid $2M to play the wedding of a Russian tycoon’s daughter in LA. [The Sun]
- Iggy Azalea announced a collaboration with her former nemesis Azealia Banks. [EW]
- Ed Sheeran quit Twitter. [The Sun]
- Here’s Adam Levine in a trailer for the comedy film Fun Mom Dinner. [YouTube]
- Demi Lovato teased a new track out next week. [Instagram]
- Charlie Puth announced his second studio album is titled Voice Notes “just like the iPhone app.” Although the actual app is called Voice Memos. [YouTube]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
Only one question has been plaguing me for weeks…
Why doesn't Rihanna have TSA precheck? pic.twitter.com/ju4538dTX4
— Sarah Ramos (@sarahramos) June 29, 2017