Imagine Dragons have spent the last few years pondering some of life's biggest questions. But in some ways, they always have. Even as they've blurred borders between once-separate genres and taken their songs to arenas around the world, they've kept intimacy and vulnerability at their core. They've written stormy alt-rock songs about religious guilt, pondered the mysteries of love over shimmering synthesizers, and worried about the end of the world over swirls of dizzying electronics. It's part of what's made them connect with the millions and millions who've listened to their songs over the last decade, but their 2021 album Mercury -- Act 1 and their 2022 follow-up Mercury -- Act 2, delve deeper than ever before -- writing straightforwardly and honestly about the uncertainties and anxieties that keep people around the world awake at night.
On their surface, the songs feel familiar. Vocalist Dan Reynolds, guitarist Wayne Sermon, bassist Ben McKee, and drummer Daniel Platzman swerve deliriously between styles. Act 1 stretches from Prince-ly funk to dewy Beach Boys pop to anthemic alt-punk. But Act 2 feels even more vibrant, diving between moody radio refractions, spare acoustic ballads, rim-rattling digital production, and lush organ meditations. But here, on both records, that adventurousness is magnified by the presence of legendary (and legendarily eclectic) producer Rick Rubin.
Rubin indulged the group's boundary-pushing sonic experiments, sure, but he also encouraged them to be themselves -- to write songs that felt frank and true. Thus, both Acts of Mercury are inherently intertwined by their thematic content, mulling matters of existence, looking up at the sky and asking why. "I see Act 1 as about the beginning of life and innocence," Reynolds says. "Act 2 is about death and finality. It's a much heavier record, but it's two sides of the same coin."
That's made abundantly clear by the fact that Act 2 hits DSPs as an expansion to Act 1 -- Mercury is now, officially, a double album -- adding depth and contrast to the life-affirming tracks fans have already heard. And since the release of Act 1, Imagine Dragons' moving songs have connected with more ears than ever before. They released the self-lacerating anthem "Enemy," which quickly became their fastest song to hit 1 billion streams and has achieved over 4 billion streams since its release. That single -- which was included as a bonus track to Act 1 and now kicks off Mercury -- helped power the group to new milestones. In 2021, they were the highest streaming band in the US and the top-selling US band worldwide. With their songs resonating with so many people, it only makes sense that Reynolds wanted to expand on the set -- to give an even fuller picture of the headspace he's been in over the last few years.
One of the biggest lessons Reynolds has taken away from these tumultuous times is learning to "accept the unknown." Between the pandemic's uncertainty, the loss of several people close to him, and the emotional intensity of separating from then reconnecting to his wife, he says he has taken away, more than anything, that it's okay for him to not always feel like he has to have all the answers to all the big questions. "I spent 30 years of my life trying to control things," says Reynolds. "But you can never do it, it's just going to frustrate you. There's a relief in letting go."
So even when he grapples with death directly on Act 2's lead single "Bones," he's doing so from a place of peace and understanding. Over a delirious dark-pop instrumental, Reynolds sings about the realization that the reaper is always lurking. Instead of being afraid, he learns to smile in the face of the grim absurdity of existence. "Knowing that death is around the corner, I'd prefer to leave life laughing at that notion rather than crying about what I've lost," he says.
Even though dealing with subject matter so directly is new to this era of Reynolds' writing, it is, he says, an extension of what he's been doing as a songwriter since he was a kid. Growing up in Las Vegas, Reynolds wrote constantly from adolescence onward, surreptitiously using an older brother's computer and mic to teach himself how to make songs. As he experimented, he'd dart between sounds and styles, following whatever aural rabbit trail enticed him that day.
In that way, he says, writing songs has always been a "selfish" exercise -- a way of getting out feelings he didn't even understand himself at the time. As a teenager, that meant dealing with a lot of unprocessed angst, but even as he's grown and his priorities have changed, he says he maintains the same mindset as he writes. "I was writing because it felt really good to air out what I was feeling," he says. "Even now, it's how I process things. I need to let this out."
It's a testament to his gifts as a writer -- his ability to pack songs with specific enough details and universal enough messages -- that the songs he's made with Imagine Dragons have resonated on a scale he can still barely understand. In addition to becoming the top streaming group of all time in the US, they've also landed multiple Billboard top 10 singles ("Radioactive," "Demons," et al.), RIAA plaques (including 2x platinum for 2012's Night Visions and 2017's Evolve), and Grammy nominations (plus a win in 2014 for Best Rock Performance, "Radioactive").
Coming off Act 1, "Enemy" featuring JID was a powerful reminder of the band's reach. Though written as the theme for Netflix's Arcane series, based on the League of Legends video game universe, Reynolds treated the song like any other -- writing from the heart, despite the fact that his words were going to be tied to a fanciful narrative about grief, revenge, and techno-magic. That this biting anthem about self-doubt and inner struggle became a massive hit was just a bonus.
As Imagine Dragons worked on the songs for Mercury -- Act 2 -- some recorded during their initial Rubin sessions, some finished since the release of Act 1 -- they've written from the same earnest place that informed "Enemy," that has informed all their songs to date. They dug deep, tracing the contours of the rapidly evolving state of their psyches during a time when they were going through intense personal changes. It's no accident that the songs "I'm Happy" and "I Don't Like Myself," despite their contradictory titles, are right next to each other at the center of Act 2.
The songs of Mercury's final chapter are among the most tense, raw, and dramatic the band has ever written. But part of the joy in Act 2 is that heavy as it can be, Imagine Dragons still wear their deep realizations with a smile. Tracks like "Sharks" -- which finds Reynolds lambasting the world's selfishness, before poking fun at his own hypocrisy -- cut the dark with a little sweetness and humor. It's an approach that highlights his continued growth as a writer, and an unerring dedication to capturing life's complexity in his songs. "Life can be devastating," he says. "And you can either become a hermit and sit in your house all day or accept that things are out of your control. I decided to stop caring about meaningless things -- I'm gonna live to my fullest."