When Nightwish released their last album, 2007’s Dark Passion Play, fans were reasonably skeptical. After all, the album was the band’s first following the highly acrimonious split with former lead singer Tarja Turunen. New vocalist Anette Olzon was a relative unknown, and it was legitimate to question whether chief writer and band leader Tuomas Holopainen could keep the magic. He did, and then some; Dark Passion Play is as soaring and ambitious an album as anything in Nightwish’s then decade-long discography. Olzon’s vocal prowess was a perfect fit for the band, and Holopainen’s songwriting was as sharp as ever. Fans breathed a sigh of relief, and when a new album was announced, it was greeted with enthusiasm; surely the album would rise to even higher heights than Dark Passion Play now that the group was familiar with each other and free of off-stage issues, right?
Well… no. In fact, Imaginaerum, the seventh studio album from Nightwish and second to feature Olzon, falls more than a little flat. It isn’t a bad album, but it isn’t a particularly great album either. Musically, it sounds like a Nightwish album, with Holopainen’s synthesized orchestral score complementing strong performances from the rest of the instrumentalists (particularly bassist Marco Hietala, who’s never been better) to create the sweeping, grandiose film score-like sound fans have come to expect from the band. Olzon’s voice is still one of the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard, and Hietala’s harsh vocals offer a nice dichotomy on the songs where they’re featured. Yet for all her talent, Olzon never shoots for the moon, never belts out her songs the way she did on Dark Passion Play staples “Eva” and “For the Heart I Once Had.” It makes for a more subtle, intimate record I suppose, but Olzon can out-Adele Adele for God’s sake; let her do it! Perhaps that’s an unfair strike against Imaginaerum, as Olzon’s voice is easily the best part of listening to Nightwish, but in almost every song, there were moments where I was waiting, hoping this would be the time for her to let it rip… and it never happened.
Additionally, a lot of the songs feel a bit dull. The musicianship and vocals are great, there’s just no real feeling of energy behind them. The result is an album that’s largely forgettable; I’ve listened to it five times and can’t really call to mind anything as standing apart from the rest of it, with two exceptions. And in a complete turnaround from the previous paragraph, what a duo of exceptions. “Storytime” and “Slow, Love, Slow” are not only the two best songs on this album, they are two of the best songs Nightwish has ever put to album. “Storytime” is true Nightwish bombast, with lyrics of Neverland and Peter Pan coming across not as cheesy, but as exciting and inspirational, a real “feel great” song. And “Slow, Love, Slow” sounds like something one might hear in an old-school night club, Hietala’s jazzy bass riff grooving underneath Olzon’s smoky, seductive vocals. This is the one song on the album where I never wanted more from Olzon; her subtle approach is absolutely perfect.
Ultimately, Imaginaerum is an ok album. It doesn’t compare to the highlights of the band’s illustrious career, but it isn’t a disaster by any stretch. It’s a great album to have on in the background, but with the exceptions of “Storytime” and “Slow, Love, Slow,” it doesn’t have the staying power of previous albums Once and Dark Passion Play.