Say what you will about Imagine Dragons, but they don’t do things halfway. Since breaking through in the early 2010s with singles like the monster stomp “Radioactive” and the neo-power-ballad “Demons,” the Las Vegas band has been big in every sense — its success, its sound, its ambition. So it makes sense that their latest album, the 18-track opus Mercury — Act 2, is actually the second half of a double album, finishing off what last year’s sprawling Mercury — Act 1 started.
Thematically, Mercury — Act 2 deals with the existential fallout of the loss that was described on Mercury — Act 1, with tracks riddled with self-loathing and regret, as well as the occasional upbeat offering. “Life is just perspective/Laughing when you’ve wrecked it,” frontman Dan Reynolds muses on the ornate “Symphony,” and that seems to be the guiding ethos of Act 2, which leavens Imagine Dragons’ sometimes-crushing sound with darkly witty lyrics and, occasionally, sonic choices that let the band’s music breathe a little.
Imagine Dragons are shrewd observers of what’s worked in alt-rock over the past three decades, fusing together elements of its defining acts in their quest for stadium-shaking gold. On the angst-ridden “I Don’t Like Myself” and campfire singalong “Take It Easy,” Reynolds’ yelp is smoothed out enough to recall the gulped croon of post-“Under the Bridge” Anthony Kieidis; the sort of reggae-inspired syncopations that have kept bands like Sublime in heavy rotation even among Gen Z abound; and acoustic-guitar-powered cuts like the wistful “Younger” and the delicate love song “Ferris Wheel” call back to Imagine Dragons’ jangly pre-megastardom single “It’s Time.”
The headphone-readiness and playful nature of “Symphony” result in it being one of the album’s highlights, while “Blur,” which is propelled by grimy riffing and an explosive shout-along chorus, sounds like Imagine Dragons’ next candidate for pop crossover. While Imagine Dragons could definitely be categorized as a band prone to largesse musically and emotionally, Mercury — Act 2 places its high-octane emotionalism into compact packages: Even the more downcast cuts, like the mortality-minded opener, “Bones,” and the stomping “Higher Ground,” cast brooding shadows while keeping it moving.
At times, Imagine Dragons’ tendencies toward over-the-topness gives its music extra heft. “I Wish” is a regret-wracked ballad about a friend who passed away before it was possible to say goodbye, and its subject matter makes it a natural match for Imagine Dragons’ emotional maximalism; Reynolds’ voice is in full force here, and “How I wish I was a better friend/Before it was too late” is the sort of sentiment even the most reserved person might scream in an empty room.
Imagine Dragons have been at the top of rock’s admittedly depleted heap for a decade-plus now, and on Mercury — Act 2 they’re not reinventing themselves, but they are fine-tuning what has turned them into one of the few rock acts that can reliably headline stadiums and launch tracks onto pop playlists. Mercury — Act 2 is the product of a band that realizes the essence of its appeal, tweaking it just enough to potentially interest nonfans while never losing sight of how they reached the world’s biggest stages in the first place.