Music Reviews
Is The Is Are

DIIV Is The Is Are

(Captured Tracks) Buy it from Insound Rating - 8/10

Is The Is Are centers around achieving the redemption of self, albeit without acknowledging that the path to get there can seem like a treacherous impossibility. The struggles DIIV frontman Zachary Cole Smith has gone through have been very much publicized, which bears no repeating, though they do reflect a man who cheated himself into the belief that escapism is a positive engagement. After a trudging few years trying to write new material, it became clear for Smith that the only way to reacquaint himself with his creative process was to make some drastic changes. Smith, though, is the type to believe that music can truly be a savior, that he can actually make some good out of it by documenting those drawbacks with striking specificity.

DIIV’s debut record, Oshin, was widely celebrated when it was originally released (or not), obtaining showers of praise for its ebbing rhythmic pulse. There’s isn’t any doubt that Smith and Andrew Bailey are talented guitarists: the reverb-drenched electric guitars were something akin to playing surf chord progressions alongside a soft blanket of limpid dissonance. The problem with Oshin stems from its limited songwriting scope, where even an album that wasn’t even too lengthy to begin with doesn’t make much of an effort to vary the template; it’s a dreadfully boring forty minutes of even-tempered melodic structures that bear an uninflected production aesthetic. There’s something to be said about how DIIV did bring back guitar rock into the conversation, increasing its relevance and bringing to the fore a surfeit of docile dream-pop bands, but Oshin was unquestionably as commonplace as its imitators.

Not only does Is The Is Are have a more compelling narrative, but more importantly, it adds an exciting vigor and freshness of approach. That’s not to say that it’s a particularly cheerful record, as Smith continues to mutter his words with barely an audible response. But that sense of claustrophobic despair fits the album’s honest look into addiction, and that extra oomph in recording fidelity does reveal how DIIV are benefitting from this album’s steelier dynamics. As opposed to Oshin’s spacious repetition, Is The Is Are goes for punchy and melodic: the roundabout contours of Under the Sun and Incarnate Devil are kraut songs in miniature, moving along swiftly while holding on to that air of suspension. Others, like Valentine and Blue Boredom (Sky’s Song), utilize scything textures to emphasize Smith’s caustic hypnotic dirge; the latter, especially, features a stultified Sky Ferreira doing her best Kim Gordon impersonation.

But much to Smith’s delight, Is The Is Are truly does accomplish a through and through alternative rock sound. Bent (Roi’s Song) and Mire (Grant’s Song) sound like nineties “buzz bin” selections that somehow find that middle ground between luscious, cascading textures and fibrous melodic passages; it serves to mention that Smith’s soul-deadened musings echo that era’s comprehensive apathy (“Fought my mind to keep my life/but my body’s putting up a tougher fight"). Smith sounds even more dispirited in the otherwise tightly-wound Dopamine, where he’s experiencing a heavy withdrawal (“Shots ringing out/ I’m soaking/ Eardrums shaking/ Years started weighing me down”). Smith cunningly turns the verse into a towering anthem, and these are but a few in an hour-long stretch of penetrative vignettes that chronicle the less glamorous side of addiction.

Is the Is Are is told with barefaced honesty, seen through the lens of a band that is reclaiming their capacities as a unit after their lead songwriter faced near self-destruction. Smith doesn’t make any compromises to make things any more agreeable - in fact, the album’s bloated runtime and cogent lyrical content makes it a somewhat weary listen that rewards more when taken in short, sporadic sessions. Whereas its linear approach can reduce its more tuneful moments to drought-like conditions, a quick visit or two without any sequential distinction does emphasize its ringing, layered moments even more. There is, however, a reason to believe that this hour-long document can be credited to Smith’s vacillating emotions, as if he’s trying to hold on to a fleeting kind of joy that whisks by without a moment’s hesitation. Once it reaches its finale he’s strained, gasping for air, seemingly renewed yet guarded in his optimism.