Paradoxical as it may sound, Imagine Dragons—recipients of a Grammy and two American Music Awards—had, until last year, insecurities about its music. Frontman Dan Reynolds spent much of the band’s career in the grip of a long-standing depression that only intensified as the four-piece’s fame grew. By early 2016, the rest of the group was also flagging. Six non-stop years on the road, filled with punishing tour schedules and late-night studio sessions, had finally taken its toll.
Collectively, the band decided to put down music-making down for seven months. Reynolds sought help for his depression. His bandmates took the time to check in with friends and family, settle into a new hometown, and clock up hours at local pub trivia nights. The respite proved invaluable for the group’s mental health, and, as drummer Daniel Platzman suggests, its songwriting.
“I like to frame it in terms of a Charlie Parker quote,” he tells the Straight on the line from a tour stop in Sacramento. “He said, ‘If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.’ I think we’d squeezed the sponge of life as much as we could, and ran out of things to say in our music. We had to go and live differently, feel new ways about things, and then we could start again. I think you can see the benefits of that time off in our new record.”
The fall of 2016 was a big moment for the band, marking the four-piece’s first time back in the studio. The sabbatical had proved fruitful. Between 200 and 300 demos were brought to the table—everything from mumbled melodies on iPhone voice memos to semi-completed songs with drums and synths—and the group was prepared to sketch out the direction of the new album. Their first decision was a bold one. Rather than follow the techniques that had propelled its initial two records to international multiplatinum status, Imagine Dragons transformed its writing process entirely.
“We weren’t trying so hard on this record,” Platzman says with a laugh. “Smoke + Mirrors was a great experience, and we’re very proud of it. But it has a lot of things going on that would only happen when a band has control of their first studio. For the most part, we self-produced that album. We ran into issues, like having 300 tracks of audio for one three-minute song. Sometimes it felt like we were trying to create colours with paint, but we ended up just mixing brown in the end. This time, we wanted some clarity, and a cleaner aesthetic. We didn’t want to fall into the trap of fear-based decision-making.”
The band made some radical changes. Typically a tight-knit recording unit, Imagine Dragons opened its doors to a selection of hand-picked producers for the first time. The results transformed the group both musically and mentally. Employing, among others, the services of Swedish duo Mattman & Robin—the masterminds behind Taylor Swift’s 1989 and hits from Selena Gomez and Gwen Stefani—and Lorde’s trusted creative force, Joel Little, Imagine Dragons was ready to progress.
“We really felt confident at the end of the time off about who we are, what music we want to make, and what we sound like,” Platzman says. “We were secure enough to work with producers, and have somebody else say, ‘You’ve got the take—move on. Don’t spend the next eight hours looking for a different snare sound’. It really helped. Dan has said that the album is a place of arrival, and it is, because we would never have been confident enough to let someone take the driver’s seat if we still felt insecure.”
The record, fittingly titled Evolve, reveals a more toned—but no less muscular—Imagine Dragons. More minimalist and stripped-down than the group’s first two offerings, the LP has lost none of the band’s signature punch. Gone are the multi-layered samples that lent previous albums their muddy power, with the record’s tight sound palette proving that well-picked instruments can be more commanding than stacking hundreds of guitar and synth lines. On Evolve, less is more.
New, too, are the ‘80s influences that snake through the tracks. Album opener “I Don’t Know Why” blends a pithy, terse vocal line with the haunting triplets of a synth that would be well-placed on a Human League record. The chorus of “Mouth of the River” marries soft orchestral string lines—very “West End Girls”—with arpeggiated guitar and keyboard riffs, while standout “Yesterday” has echoes of Queen, boasting heavy grand piano chords and acrobatic three-part vocal harmonies.
“Smoke + Mirrors was very saturated, and now here’s the colour,” Platzman says. “Sounds are able to shine brighter when there’s less happening. That wasn’t intuitive for us. Evolve speaks to the greater aesthetic, it speaks to all the wonderful producers we worked with on this album, and it speaks to ourselves, and just feeling really good about who we are.
“We could not be happier with how things are going,” he continues. “If you told us at the record’s release that four months later we would have the number-one song and the number-one album on iTunes, I don’t think we would have believed you. None of us were expecting this. To have this many people connecting with the music is extremely validating. It’s wonderful at the beginning of a tour having this strong a reaction, because we’ll be taking Evolve all around the world. Knowing that people are into it makes it all the more exciting to get to each city.”
Imagine Dragons plays Rogers Arena on Sunday (October 8).
Follow Kate Wilson on Twitter @KateWilsonSays