Most discussions surrounding DIIV’s latest release start with an obligatory reference to lead songwriter Zachary Cole Smith’s well-publicized struggles with substance abuse. It’s usually described as an indie version of the typical rock star descent from critical acclaim to moral ambiguity. In reality, Smith acts as his own biggest critic. After getting arrested in Sept. 2013 with his longtime girlfriend, pop artist Sky Ferreira, Smith has suggested many times that he feels personally responsible for nearly ruining both of their lives. In this context, the ambitious and sprawling 17-track Is The Is Are makes sense. The album is supposed to be a chance for Smith to retrieve relevancy and redemption in a discourse that’s been largely focused on anything but music. Stating that he needed to stay alive at least as long as it took to record the album, Is The Is Are is intended to capture the evolution of Smith’s pain into strength and artistry.
Even a year before the release, Smith suggested that the upcoming album would offer a stylistic departure from 2012’s Oshin. The songwriter promised more introspection and a greater emphasis on vocal quality. But when “Dopamine” dropped toward the latter end of 2015, it was obvious that the single still sounded very much like DIIV. Nonetheless, with the large interlude between Oshin and the “Dopamine,” it was relieving to hear that Smith still had a penchant for intertwining the immediacy of pop with meditative deposits of self-awareness. Subsequent single releases affirmed that Is The Is Are wouldn’t likely be the massive changeup Smith had promised earlier, but still proved satisfying in their honest and hard-to-swallow depictions of addiction and recovery.
Much of Is The Is Are reveals an artist almost too tired to get the full weight of his message out. Once the vocals trickle in on “Bent (Roi’s Song),” Smith’s persona feels almost helpless against incoming waves of self-doubt. Though the delivery may come across as weak-willed, the intent is deliberate in revealing the robbing intensity of addiction. Smith isn’t shouting out so much as quivering beneath compulsions and a glaring lack of self-control. The guitar arrangements alternate between moments of sharp pain and a precarious sense of emotional relief. The song is also notable in its use of distorted guitar textures. Compared to Oshin’s reverb-soaked, dream-pop production, “Bent (Roi’s Song)” is more indebted to classic shoegaze aesthetics, with its tremolo-affected repetition and intermittent bursts of feedback. It offers a brief glimpse into what Smith may have been referring to when he suggested that Is The Is Are would take a new direction.
While double-LP’s can sometimes be afflicted by purposeless space, the middle of Is The Is Are offers several beautiful melodies that alternate between shimmering lead guitar passages and earnest vocal takes. “Yr Not Far” remains memorable despite its inherent subtlety and limited lyrical contributions. “Mire (Grant’s Song)” offers a reprisal of the critical self-awareness first explored in “Bent (Roi’s Song).” The song is also creative in its use of feedback as an all-consuming force that mars clarity before revealing a newly acquired sense of direction. There are only a few instances when the album begins to feel unruly. “Incarnate Devil” seems to retouch on sonic elements that seemed more fully realized during earlier songs on the album. For the most part, however, Is The Is Are is fairly judicious and conscious of not wasting space.
While Is The Is Are is not the obvious masterpiece that DIIV may have intended at its production’s outset, it does offer a self-contained portrait without becoming too absorbed with its own construction. Its most obvious achievement is that it further expands upon a template that has been explored in varying degrees since at least the early ’90s. The shared personal revelations of defeat and redemption feel authentic and substantial. Despite Smith’s occasional fatalistic posturing, Is The Is Are suggests that DIIV still has plenty of room to maneuver creatively.
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