A screenshot from Mercury: Part 2 song Bone's music video showing a man staring into a mirror absentmindedly.

Unimaginative Dragons: Is ‘Mercury: Act 2’ Deep or Mediocre?

Recently released demo ‘Love of Mine’ reminds us of the Imagine Dragons' road to its latest album.
September 14, 2022
11 mins read

When previously unreleased demo “Love of Mine” dropped on Sept. 2, Imagine Dragons briefly returned to their roots. Gritty guitar and drums made a temporary comeback, a reminder of the “Night Visions” era from which the single harkens. (For this year’s 10th anniversary, the band is releasing an expanded version of “Night Visions.”)  As lovely as the song is, it highlights the band’s trajectory and makes the differences between “Night Visions” and Imagine Dragon’s latest album, “Mercury: Act 2,” especially stark.

Compared to the raw emotion of their early albums and extended plays, it feels like they’ve dressed “Mercury” up in a slick suit for mass consumption. Concealed by a polished exterior, the band leaves in a few quirkier out-of-place beats that work in isolation but don’t seem to fit together when listening to the album from start to finish.

Trying to define the amorphous alt-rock band Imagine Dragons yields mixed results. Perhaps the most prominent part of the band’s image is their use of their platform to promote several great causes, including the Trevor Project. Currently, their ambassadorship to Ukraine has taken center stage. Then there is the path they took to forge such a platform for their philanthropy. While some bands struggled on their way to fame, Imagine Dragons started on a high note.

First, they rocketed to the top of the charts with their gritty beginnings in “Night Visions,” which included the band’s breakout track, “Radioactive.” The Billboard Hot 100 record for “Radioactive” only recently fell to The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights.” Since then, they’ve been hit-or-miss with meeting fans’ expectations, as their next album, the rough “Smoke & Mirrors,” had a more rocky reception.

More hits streamed in with their following two albums, “Evolve” and “Origins.” Finding their stride, they gave the world “Believer,” “Whatever It Takes,” “Thunder,” “Natural” and “Bad Liar.” Screams ricocheted through the void, delivering pure emotion blunted at the edges for mass consumption. Whatever formula they settled on clearly worked.

All of this brings us to where we are now. With the band’s mainstream success, Imagine Dragons earned a license to explore thematically heavier lyrics and foray into more divisive artistic territory. In 2021, Imagine Dragons released “Mercury: Act 1” to mixed reviews. The album followed the trend set by the first two singles, bouncing between the vengeful riot of “Cutthroat” with the blissful romance of “Follow You.” Not exactly the most seamless combination. Despite being less coherent, the variety ensured there would be something for everyone. Individual tracks either fell to the wayside or became some fans’ favorites. Overall, the album reflected the messiness of the human mind, erratically expressing the theme of mental health across the tracks.

Lacking many grand standout tracks compared to its predecessor, “Mercury: Act 2” arrived with little fanfare to become a solid but unremarkable second side of the album. About as many songs floated, gentle and dreamlike, as songs that roared. The only difference between the two halves is that “Mercury: Act 2” feels less damaged, recovering from the uneven breakdown of “Mercury: Act 1.” But you have to pay attention to the words to recognize that.

Catchy as it is, the first single and opening track of “Mercury: Act 2,” “Bones,” reflects the album’s general sentiment. “My patience is waning / Is this entertaining?” indeed. It’s not that the album is all bad; it just doesn’t give anyone a reason to remain invested. Many tracks can stand alone, but together, they create a blur. At some point, listeners look up, finding the band’s much more interesting “Enemy” has looped back and started playing again. What a signal to realize one has dozed through the 18-track latter half of “Mercury.” (Making the album shorter might have helped.)

Despite some flaws, the first half of “Mercury: Act 2” works quite well. Released as singles, “Bones” and “Sharks” might be the album’s highlights, with good reason. Their distinct, thundering, fast-paced tunes simultaneously disguise and enhance themes of mortality and shallow, backstabbing friendships. From another artist, lines like “Wait until the reaper takes my life / Never gonna get me out alive” would pick a side. But from this band, such words carry an air both haunting and energizing. Only improving the songs, their music videos feature dancing and espionage amid the slightly surreal scenes of zombies and actual sharks, respectively.

Sandwiched between the singles, the saccharine “Symphony” composes a medley of overdone musical metaphors. Still, its lyrics remain more memorable than tracks like the weekend-ready “Blur” and “Higher Ground,” which round out the best of the album. (Amid delightful restrained, clipped percussion, “Higher Ground” even references symphonies early on in the lyrics.) Following “Sharks,” another classic Imagine Dragons song on mental health emerges in “I Don’t Like Myself.” It may not be their best yet, but it’s a solid anthem.

In the middle of the album, the remaining tracks contain a few bright moments of their own, many deceptively hidden behind lighter melodies. The strangely retro “Crushed” disguises beautifully disturbing lyrics — most notably, a reference to “The Scarlet Letter” with “And the scarlet ‘A’ on your neck / So pretty in red / Eyes are all dead” — amid gentle rock. Following that haunting melody, we receive another odd, irreverent tune with “Take It Easy.” The song probably takes itself too easy among laid-back drums and guitar chords. Then the buoyant “Waves” combines a fleeting beat with raw vocals that carry personal messages of mortality, loss, and the unpredictable nature of life. His voice breaking, lead singer Dan Reynolds sings, “Life, it could change, it could change in a day,” a line undoubtedly tied to his own losses, including his sister-in-law and one of his best friends.

Casual and offbeat, “I’m Happy” seems briefly uncharacteristic for the band as it coasts through a description of depression. Eventually, it turns melancholy and reaches a deeper level than it first appeared. Gentle romance takes “Ferris Wheel” for a drifting, melodic turn, much like a Ferris wheel itself. After the less memorable “Peace of Mind,” upbeat “Sirens” bubbles up and returns to the there’s-a-deeper-message approach of “Bones,” “Sharks” and “Waves.” Any of these songs would work well on their own, and a few tracks complement each other well. Yet together, they feel like a haphazard collection of emotions.

Only at the end of “Mercury: Act 2” does Imagine Dragons finally connect to its rich sonic strength. Lead singer Dan Reynolds carries a pain in his voice that may very well come from experience. After all, the ballad “Tied” calls directly to his wife, Aja Volkman, after they almost divorced. Reflecting on youth, “Younger” provides a bittersweet, relatable nostalgia for all we’ve lost. With “I Wish,” passionate piano supports heart-wrenching lyrics about a friend’s death, holding up the grief of “I wish I had been there in the end / I wish I was a better friend.” There’s no resolution as the song ends abruptly, just lingering pain. “Continual” provides a brief reprieve amid the emotional depths of the album.

When Dan Reynolds sings “They Don’t Know You Like I Do,” you can feel heartbreak rivaled only by “Wrecked” from the first act. Here is a feeling, pure and personal, and a melody far from generic. Despite the amount of radio-friendly material on the album, “Mercury” does have a distinct soul. It’s not old-school Imagine Dragons, and it certainly isn’t catchy, battle-ready fare, but it’s heartfelt. Maybe the tracks blend together, but across the hours, we see a soul shattered, then smoothly reassembled. By the album’s close, the band finds catharsis as “Act 2” heals the broken, messy “Act 1.”

With the way the band reinvents itself on each album, Imagine Dragons has it in themselves to find another angle. Hopefully, their next turn will come together into a shorter, more coherent album to join their record-smashing collection. Until that time, fans can enjoy the 10th anniversary of “Night Visions.”

Ashley Hagan, Virginia Commonwealth University

Writer Profile

Ashley Hagan

Virginia Commonwealth University

While I am a biology major and chemistry minor, I’m also an avid writer in my free time. Mostly I write fiction, but I enjoy sharing my writing in a variety of ways.

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