By the time Imagine Dragons finished touring around their fourth album Origins, the band decided to take a much-needed breath, and break, in 2019 after a decade on the road to work through loss and grief, along with breakdowns and breakthroughs in relationships and other tribulations all summarized on Mercury – Act 1.
Written over the course of three years, and around the time the band—vocalist Dan Reynolds, guitarist Wayne Sermon, bassist Ben McKee, and drummer Daniel Platzman—went on hiatus, Mercury – Act 1 is caught in the most vulnerable states, peering deeper inside and at the soreness of the outside world, with reflections of survival. A collection of lucid lyrics centered around mortality and more revelatory notions of existence, Mercury – Act 1 walks through a procession of grieving and renewal.
“I’ve had a lot of realizations about the fragility of life,” reveals Reynolds. “I was going to a lot of funerals.”
When Reynolds also stepped away from the band to focus on family, he also looked inward to find some healing. “It took walking away from everything to find a lot more clarity and happiness,” he says. Writing since he was 12 years old, regardless of the highs and lows within his own life, Reynolds continued writing while the band took a break, transferring all his swaying states into 300 songs.
“When we were putting this record together, the main themes were really grief, the loss of life, and the finite state of life,” says Reynolds. “I lost a lot of people that I was close to during this time period from suicide, drug addiction, cancer, and it was a lot of grief and dealing with that and trying to find some meaning in it all.”
Referencing the volatility of the metal, Mercury – Act 1, works as a metaphor for shifting mindsets and new perspectives. “I have fewer answers than I ever have,” says Reynolds. “But I’m at a point where I’m at peace with no answers. It actually feels like a nice place to be.”
Originally, Reynolds wanted to use the word “mercurial” to express life’s extreme highs and lows but landed on Mercury. “Either the songs very heavy or angry, or very sad or very happy, so it [mercury] just made sense, and I also liked the visual effects of mercury.”
Produced by Rick Rubin at his Shangri-La studio in Malibu, the band initially sent the producer 100 of the original 300, and were surprised when he responded with the set of tracks he liked and focused on specific lyrics where he could reach a deeper intimacy with the band. Eventually, Rubin narrowed the batch down to the final 13 tracks with the band. Likening Mercury – Act 1 to a journal entry, Reynolds wanted to pick out the songs that correlated and told the story of the past three years, and everything in between the previous album cycle, and Rubin offered an outside perspective that helped them formulate that journey.
“As I get older, and when you’ve been an artist for longer, you care about different things, and you’re more impacted by things and care less about things you cared about earlier on,” shares Reynolds. “As an artist, I’ve grown a lot, but working with someone as profound and wise, and experienced as Rick Rubin, there’s certainly a whole lot that I’ve learned from him and his process.”
Hyper-focused on vulnerability, something Reynolds always intends to plant in his songs, Rubin took it up a notch. “I’ve always tried to be vulnerable with my music, but certainly hid behind a wall of protection from metaphors in my music, or not putting a certain song on the record that felt a little too vulnerable for me, or not writing that song in the first place,” says Reynolds. “Rick really pushed me to embrace vulnerability, above all, and that was one of my biggest takeaways.”
Told in a straightforward stream, there are no convoluted storylines on Mercury – Act 1, says Reynolds. Imagine Dragons want to tell the story in the least amount of pages possible, from the swelling “My Life” baring I’m finding it hard to love myself / I wanted to be somebody else… I’m running out of time, through the jazzier pop rendering of “Lonely,” and the heartache of “Wrecked,” a song Reynolds wrote after losing his sister-in-law to cancer. With “Monday,” a funk-popped ode to Prince, Mercury bonds around self-love and empowerment on the anthemic “#1″ and more manic spells of “Giants” and “Dull Knives.” Reflecting more personal states over the past three years, Reynolds wrote “Follow You” following a seven-month separation and near divorce with his wife, while “Cutthroat,” explores nixing the inner critic, all culminating on the heightened state of “One Day.”
Barely a victim of writer’s block, songwriting is never a chore for Reynolds. “I never felt like I needed to write a song, or that this is hard work, and I needed to take time away because I’m frustrated finishing it,” says Reynolds. “That’s never been a part of my process. There’s so much inspiration to be drawn in so many different areas that it never feels like it’s work.”
He adds, “I never know the story that I need to tell him until I sit down and tell it. I’ve never worked on a record and said ‘I want to write about this.’ I think if I did that it would yield poor results.”
Never guided by rules, Reynolds says he’s always creating something from nothing when writing. “It flows out pretty effortlessly, or else I wouldn’t do it,” says Reynolds. “If it ever felt like work, I would have never done it. For me, it’s always been just a joy, and it always comes from a place that is very effortless.”
Whether it’s the political state, feeling happy, or looking toward the future, Reynolds is involved in that moment and mindset. “I’m a very in-the-moment writer,” he says. “I’ve never thought in advance. I’ve never written lyrics down or had a journal that I wrote down lyrics that I tried to put into music later. It’s never been my way of creating. It’s always just in the moment.”
Ending on a graceful note, Mercury -Act 1 is an intimate retrieval of acceptance, healing, and perseverance. “I hope that it’s a joyful record,” says Reynolds. “I hope that it feels like a celebration of life, and I think in order to fully celebrate life, you need to have hard moments and sad moments, and angry moments, and hopeful moments.”
Reynolds adds, “The record ends on ‘One Day,’ which is probably the most simple and happy song that looks to a brighter future. I did that on purpose, because I wanted it to come full circle at the end and for the listener to feel like life is marred, but it’s also beautiful, and there’s also a wonderful future ahead. It can be whatever you want it to be.”