Odds are good that thousands of teenage Mormons are listening to Night Visions, the debut album by Las Vegas’ Imagine Dragons, thrilling to subtle faith references the way Christian kids did with Switchfoot 10 years ago. Yes, Imagine Dragons is getting bigger by the moment and, yes, half of the band members are current members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Funny, few are asking if they are a Mormon rock band, or just Mormons in a rock band. That must be a hang-up unique to evangelicalism.
Like The Killers and Panic! At The Disco, other Vegas acts with connections to the LDS church, Imagine Dragons emerge from Sin City with a uniquely wholesome and uplifting perspective throughout their sweeping, arena-ready modern rock. Though there are no obvious references to God, or Joseph Smith for that matter, the band is conspicuous by what is missing: sex, rebellion, nihilism, selfishness and moping. Unlike Switchfoot, there was no Mormon rock world for these young musicians to develop in or to become branded by, yet somehow I’m sure every rock-loving Mormon teen is probably rallying for these guys as their home team.
A fairly extensive survey of reviews of Night Visions did not reveal a single reference to the band’s religious background. However, when asked directly about their faith, Dan Reynolds and Wayne Sermon don’t shy away from it. A feature in BestOfLasVegas.com tackled the subject head on earlier this year. “We’re not a religious band,” Reynolds told the site. “Dan and I are religious people and the other members are agnostic, so I think we come out somewhere in the middle. I like to think that we connect with people on a spiritual level with our music in some way, but we do our best to keep religion as separate as we can. We’re not ashamed of it, but we just don’t want to alienate anybody.”
The ambition throughout Night Visions is nothing less than stadium-sized. With the deft touch of British hip-hop producer Alex da Kid (Rihanna, Eminem), the band crafts one of the most meticulously calculated and seamlessly executed discs in recent years. If there is a sound on the radio right now it can be found on this set. Dubstep? Folk? Pop? Urban? Absolutely. Their hit single, “It’s Time,” is built around a mandolin lick. The album’s opener is full of Skrillex-inspired samples, while the bizarrely poppy “Every Night” threatens, but never quite delivers, a pre-teen's YouTube pop dream. The songs are especially strong on the front half of the disc, several of which have appeared on previous EPs, but the formula wears out deeper in. Still, even when the imagination departs, the execution is eerily perfect.
Lyrically the album is indefatigably optimistic - even when it explores death, depression, the end of the world and heartbreak. There are anthems to “being yourself” and “not selling out.” There are plaintive commitments to fidelity. There are morose essays full of self-loathing and confession. There are vague cultural commentaries using “The Apocalypse” as the band’s main foil. Vocalist and front-man Dan Reynolds must be a Jon Foreman fan. His heartfelt and angsty vocals are ripped right from the Switchfoot DNA, if not nearly as well realized lyrically. Where Foreman is a poet, Reynolds is a motivational speaker with a penchant for the theatrical. In most cases it works. His passion and the band and producer’s dedication to sonic perfection can make “just OK” songs sound “epic.”
By trying to be all things to all people, Night Visions virtually assures itself to be a collection of singles for various niches. “It’s Time” is already a hit, and there will no doubt be others. With elements of '80s bands like Big Country and Simple Minds comingling with Deadmau5, Nicki Minaj, Diddy and Florence and the Machine, this is one impressively bipolar album. Its spirituality is passionate and shallow, allowing anyone of just about any faith to resonate with it in one way or another. Similar to the Republican nominee for the president, Imagine Dragons are cryptic regarding the theological machinations that distinguish their faith from Biblical Christianity and that drive their particular worldview. Like Romney, these dragons are long on vaguely inspirational platitudes and as slick as the devil.