(Photo from ImagineDragons | Youtube)
Content warning: this article contains mentions of death and gun violence.
“I don’t typically write love songs,” said a writer of one of the most spectacularly devastating love songs I’ve heard. Dan Reynolds, lead singer of American pop rock band Imagine Dragons, spoke in an interview about “Next To Me,” the first track on a re-issue of the band’s 2017 third studio album “Evolve.” The almost four-minute track is marked as the band’s debut love song and came out in February 2018, with a 12-minute short film as a music video released a month later.
“I started writing when I was about 13 years old, and it was a source of an escape from school from depression — from feeling lost — and it was never a romance,” Reynolds said in the same interview, “so for me, this is [one] of the first times that I’ve really explored diving into my mind and the musicality and sonicality of romance.”
I think one of the reasons this song reached so many people is that it utilizes Reynolds’ background in writing about topics he’s used to covering, like depression and feeling lost. The track is actually about his relationship with American singer Aja Volkman. The two got married in 2011 and had three daughters before the couple started not speaking to each other in late 2017.
After seven months, Reynolds announced that they were separating, looking towards a divorce in the near future. While it didn’t end up going through at the time, he and Volkman made sure to be there for their children while they were figuring out their relationship. They got back together by 2019 and welcomed a son to their family.
In late 2022, however, Reynolds stated that he and Volkman were separating once again, leading to the most recent news of an official divorce on April 18, 2023. As they did earlier, the duo has promised to continue coparenting their children as best as they can while not being together. Volkman mentioned that navigating their relationship while being in the public eye was difficult.
Based on this timeline, “Next To Me” must have been written during the first period that they split. Although the release of the short film demonstrates the importance of this song to Reynolds, I think it speaks enough volume that the song was put as the first track on the re-issued album, even if the film had never been released.
The film is quite the cinematic piece and was directed by Mark Pellington. It begins with Volkman reading out loud a letter she wrote to Reynolds presumably after having some conflict within their marriage. The visuals show clips of the couple, natural scenery, and each person separately. The scenes with them together are much brighter and warmer in color, representing the blooming love they had while with each other.
Volkman’s voice in itself is so unique with a raspy tone, and it’s clear that her voice is breaking from tearing up while she’s speaking in the beginning. “Maybe you knew all along you would just string me along for all these years… I will erase you from my heart, from my mind; I will wash you away, and I will never look back,” she forces out.
As she finishes reading the letter, the video pans in on Reynolds entering a pawn shop with his bandmates playing some of the characters in the shop. There’s strong tension between Reynolds and the shopkeeper as Reynolds holds up his wedding ring, asking for its price. The lighting is cool and dark, signifying the breakup having taken place prior.
Ambient and slightly unsettling music continues to play as the speech between the keeper and Reynolds stays inaudible to the viewer until the keeper says the ring is only worth $200, which is also narrated in a distorted, slowed-down voice. Reynolds takes the ring back and looks around the shop angrily, with his voice starting to become clearer.
He says, “I beg you to never know me — to forget every wrong thing I ever did, I ever said,” in the voiceover as he pulls out his gun and tries to take all the keeper’s money. A heartbeat plays in the background with soft strings full of sorrow; Reynolds ends up shooting at the shopkeeper while he was trying to find his own gun. Reynolds stands in front of the bloody body in disbelief and runs out of the shop with his hands up as policemen show up outside.
His voiceover continues as he’s taken to prison: “The skies open, and the ghosts came back. These are the witnesses — the ones who know all my sins. I failed all of you. I let you all die. I let you go. Part of me is next to me.” As he says that last sentence, the visuals show a prison wall with “We’re all guilty, yet we’re all loved” scratched into it.
More and more clips of oranges, orange tree fields, orange-themed curtains, and orange lighting are shown in the film. He gets released from prison and the song begins to play.
I always admired how the guitar plucking in the background of the whole track sounds so whimsical, perfectly fitting the aura of the film. I also appreciated the 6/8 feel and the song having a strong downbeat on snare drums followed by light hi-hat hits. I’ve always looked at this as Volkman being his strong, reliable snare beat during their relationship.
The orange theme continues, with most of the warmer scenes containing intimate flashbacks of Volkman and Reynolds together. The lyrical message of this song is concisely stated by the aforementioned prison wall quote. Some lines from the chorus include, “I always let you down / You’re shattered on the ground / But still I find you there / Next to me.”
This speaks to what I mentioned earlier about the track including themes that Reynolds is accustomed to writing about — mental illness and disorientation. Being in a relationship with someone who is constantly second-guessing themselves and doesn’t always make the best decisions for themselves can present unique challenges. “Next To Me” displays the responsive point of view of someone who plays this role in the relationship, and is thankful towards their partner for being there for them.
Reynolds has spoken about being fallible in a different interview, saying that “Marriage is not perfect. Relationships aren’t perfect… I have depression. I have anxiety. We’re all humans,” which reflects the theme of this song even more. He and Volkman were on their way to a divorce, but continued to describe themselves as each other’s best friends because of how much love they had for one another.
Even now, with the announcement of their most recent split, he said, “I love [Volkman]. She is my best friend and an incredible mother, and we are going to be great parents to our kids. Relationships are so complex — here we are, at the close of a chapter, and it feels hard; it feels like mourning for me. But it also feels like I’m just on the path I’m supposed to be on in life.”
It aches me knowing how vulnerable they both had to be to put this film together while they were split, explaining to the public that it’s mutual and that they both knew they had to work to build up their relationship again.
The meaning of the oranges throughout the film continues to feel hazy to me; the most relevant connection I could gather includes the juxtaposition of orange clothes worn by someone in jail — Reynolds — and orange representing change, movement, and transformation within nature, like when vegetables ripen, or trees change color in autumn — illustrating the change in relationship between the two.
The bridge of the song introduces a mostly-acapella section with Reynolds singing, “Thank you for taking on a chance on me. I know it isn’t easy, but I hope to be worth it.” It repeats a few more times in the film than it does in the official track, and I also found it interesting that the gunshot sound from earlier replays right after one of these lines, with the visuals showing that he’s being sentenced to death for murdering the shopkeeper.
Volkman is heard reading a letter from Reynolds saying that he failed them both and is sorry. He’s sitting on the electric chair for his death penalty, and she’s watching him from the glass window. The “thank you” line from the bridge continues to repeat, and Reynolds is seen happy and content while there are scenes playing of him in the chair.
The only way I can describe the next clips is aching serotonin; an orange is bursting with juice and flavor, and contrasting scenes of the couple together and Reynolds’ death sentence are shown. “We ask for forgiveness from ourself, from the monster we can’t see… The possibility of life without love,” Volkman says in a voiceover.
Reynolds responds with, “Touch me now before I go. Let me know I’m alive,” as he’s sitting dead on the chair.
It’s incredible how well this film portrays the passion they had for each other, at least at the time. It feels like the picture-perfect depiction of soulmates if there was one, and Reynolds, Volkman, and Pellington did a spectacular job of capturing the tenderness of it all. Five out of five crabs for “Next To Me,” a masterpiece of a song and film.
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