My son, 11 years old, listens to electronic and gaming music. He doesn’t listen to rock bands. Imagine Dragons is the lone exception. It is debatable whether they “rock” or not, but they certainly are a band, a band made up of the traditional pieces like guitar, bass, drums. So it got me curious. What makes Imagine Dragons such an all-age band, even though their songs discuss fairly dark topics?
Songwriting & Arrangement
One of the noteworthy factor in this song is that it’s a one-progression song. With one exception, the whole song is built around these chords: Bbm, Gb, Adim7. (The band plays this song in different keys for live situations, but those are the chords from the original studio recording, in concert key) That last chord looks exotic, a diminished seventh chord has a more melodramatic color with a strong momentum to resolve to the harmonic home of Bb minor.
But beyond the chords, it’s clear that the incessant groove of the drums and the minimalist dotted rhythm of the guitar create the foundation on which this song is built. Swap out either of those with a more conventional rock guitar parts and the song quickly falls apart. In a way, this is representative of their songwriting style — finding rhythmic motifs and repeat them like a looper pedal, then layering different parts on top.
Atop that foundation, singer Dan Reynolds present three sets of melodies. The verse is a relatively straight forward affair but a big jump up going to the “ooh ooh” part is a nice, catchy touch. The pre-chorus part showcases Dan’s more distinct rhythmic style, riffing fast in a triplet rhythm. Then he reaches for the high notes with a big chorus in a dramatic manner, preceded by a pause that builds tension. There is a lone deviation from the main chord progression right before the last chorus, inserting extra Gb and Ab before finally setting up the chorus with that Adim7 chord, to heighten the build for the final climax.
So the songwriting makes very efficient use of minimal materials, and the arrangements also apply the same restraint to this song. Not finding a place for his instrument, for live performance the bassist Ben McKee simply contributes extra percussion and backing vocals. Different synthesizer swells come and go but otherwise the band just gets out of the way of Dan Reynolds to let his charisma shine through unobstructed.
When there are minimal elements in the arrangements, what’s there has to really deliver, and the song rides almost entirely on the shoulders of Dan Reynolds to deliver the goods. I believe that one of the pre-requisites to becoming a household name in music business is for the artist to deliver big, bold gesture behind simple, obvious and relatable sentiments, even when the content is bordering on trite and cliché. (There are exceptions, of course — there was nothing cliché about Nirvana, nobody could even understand what he was singing about, even if we related to the underlying sentiments.) If you feel even the slightest bit shy, self-conscious or hesitant, you can’t make it work. Dan is definitely unblocked in this area, and he manages to come across both heroic and humbled at the same time, which is no easy feat.
The other start of the show is the production. This recording will not have the same kind of modern appeal without abundant modern production touches applied, from the big thickening effect on choruses to highly processed drums that sound almost artificial even though the drummer Daniel Platzman is pounding every note. It’s so common nowadays that we take it for granted, but without the reverse gate effect swelling up during each of the pauses, those arena-sized chorus will not have the same punch. Check out some of the acoustic rendition by the same band and the song becomes much more awkward affair, a pale shadow of the colosseum-shaking anthem. (My suggestion to the band: for unplugged sessions, abandon the bigness and really focus on being intimate. This song can become that.)
Imagine Dragons is certainly an act that knows where its strength lies. They know that distinct rhythmic motif creates an interesting foundation for the song. They know that Dan Reynolds can deliver a stadium-sized gesture without holding back. And they have all the modern bells and whistles to fill in the blanks. So the rest, they apply stark minimalism and get out of the way. Three out of the four band members studied music at the esteemed Berkley College of Music, but they don’t fall prey to the trappings of trained musicians, when they can’t resist being cleverer with their parts where simplicity will do. If you want to appeal to the mass, one way to approach is to distill your delivery to the pure essence, so everyone will get the same thing out of it.
From the impactfulness point of view, though, the heavy reliance on modern production is a double-edged sword. We’ll have to wait and see how this recording ages over the years. What makes a recording listenable over long periods is idiosyncrasies of human performance and real instruments. In the pursuit of ear candy they went a bit over the top and the band can’t seem to find the heart of the song when the heavy production is stripped away. Don’t get me wrong, rhythmic motifs and strong melodies can still deliver the goods with or without production sweeteners. This is a well-crafted song by mature songwriters, sung with passion. Just as they did with arrangements, they could have reined in the technology just a bit to let the song breathe, so that the audience and the artists alike can stay closer in touch with the most important part — the human elements in this song.