If ‘the only truth is music’, as Jack Kerouac insists, then surely it makes sense to tell the truth when writing music? It seems that Imagine Dragons, the alternative rock and indie band, has demonstrated this through the writing of two new singles, ‘Follow You’ and ‘Cutthroat’. The songs are teasers for the band’s upcoming fifth studio album, after a brief hiatus since the release of their 2018 album, Origins.
Something has changed in the band. That ‘something’ is perhaps Robin Ruben, a music producer whom the band worked closely with on these singles. Ruben encouraged the band to abandon metaphors, be direct and ‘embrace extremes.’ His mission has definitely been accomplished: ‘Follow You’ and ‘Cutthroat’ could not be more contrasting songs and powerfully convey everything that the band has been repressing since the release of their debut single, ‘It’s Time’, in 2012.
‘Follow You’ is a buoyant, wholesome celebration of love and loyalty. Lead singer and songwriter Dan Reynolds commented that the band do not usually write love songs ‘because it just feels redundant or cringey.’ Despite this, he was inspired to write this love song when he received a text from his wife, Aja Volkman, suggesting that they have lunch instead of finalising their divorce papers. Since then, Reynolds has rebuilt his marriage and is undergoing ayahuasca treatment. The couple are still happily married and have a 16-month old child.
The song evokes the inspiring and rousing character of Imagine Dragons that we all love, with its ridiculously catchy melody and awesome beat track. Indeed, the song is heavily inspired by the Beach Boys, with its beautiful melody and theme of love, but rather alternatively uses a minor progression. Reynolds has commented that ‘The reality of it is that not all relationships work. No relationship is perfect. It’s [‘Follow You’] about loyalty.’ This unusual minor tonality is thus poignant: it conveys how true love is about surviving adversity and is not necessarily paradisal.
The organ part is a genius nod to the Beach Boys and the lyrics are beautifully direct (‘I’ll follow you way down to your deepest low’ is my favourite), conveying Reynolds’ authentic declaration of love. Importantly, the building of texture through the addition of percussive parts, backing vocals and a beat track is wonderfully constructs layers of emotion. I quite honestly cannot fault this song. Not only is its message of enduring love incredibly powerful, but its musical structure and instrumentation are perfectly balanced.
Most of my generation probably associate Imagine Dragons with riding home on the school bus, listening to ‘Demons’ or ‘It’s Time’ on an iPod and romanticising teenage life through a foggy window. Well, ‘Cutthroat’ is definitely a song you could listen to whilst walking angrily to campus for a 9am lecture.
With its industrial style and painfully aggressive vocals, it is by far the edgiest song Imagine Dragons have released so far. Some anger has been seen in their previous songs, such as ‘Battle Cry’, ‘Friction’ and ‘Natural’, but not to the same extent. Reynolds even describes the song as ‘an exorcism of self-loathing’ and was in a ‘pretty manic state’ when writing it. The lyrics’ references to Wellbutrin and serotonin reveal that the song is about Reynolds’ battle with depression, which he has struggled with since teenage years.
We are seeing a side of Imagine Dragons that has long been hidden. Ruben is partially to thank for this: for instance, he invited organist Cory Henry to record the organ part, which was a genius move because the organ adds a whole new dimension of frustration, or ‘religious fervour of anger’, as Reynolds calls it.
Despite its confrontational style, this is a deeply introspective song, with Reynolds vulnerably painting an honest musical landscape of his manic mental state. He claimed that ‘[‘Cutthroat’] needed to be angry — anger and darkness can be a really fantastic thing at times.’ For many of us, listening to or playing music is a way of dispelling intense emotions that we could not otherwise communicate. Similarly, this song is about the release of emotions and carrying on with life, which is amazingly conveyed through provocative word-painting and jarring rhythmic motifs. Amidst ongoing discussions of mental health in society, ‘Cutthroat’ and its discussion of depression and mania could not come at a better time.
It will be interesting to see how Imagine Dragons structure their upcoming album given that these two songs are so astoundingly contrasting. Reynolds has hinted that the new album is about ‘extremes’, which has indeed been powerfully expressed in these two songs. Whilst certain aspects of Imagine Dragons will probably remain a mystery, such as the meaning behind the band’s name, we are finally beginning to understand the raw emotions lying behind their music.
As much as I have always loved Imagine Dragons, their music has always been somewhat skin-deep and impenetrable, disguising dark themes with metaphors and ‘happy-clappy’ rhythms. Reynolds said that ‘One of my greatest weaknesses is being too metaphoric out of fear. I’ve had a great fear of honesty in my life, fear of being honest about things in a very public way […] I would write songs that were overly metaphorical.’
Finally, we are seeing the enormity of the band’s emotional palette. It is quite easy for music artists to hide themselves within their music, but Imagine Dragons have finally done the opposite through uncomfortable explorations of personal feelings. No longer are the band channelling their emotions through ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ and I could not be more delighted.
‘Follow You’ and ‘Cutthroat’ are available now via Interscope records
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