February Music Reviews (DIIV’s Is the Is Are)

By Nicholas Darbonne

DIIV – Is the Is Are (Captured Tracks, 2/5)

There’s a cultural fascination with the drug-addled musician. He or she sits somewhere between myth and reality. DIIV (pronounced “dive”) frontman Zachary Cole Smith knows this. Accordingly, many of his heroes are are the very same. And if there’s anything to be said for having bad role models, it’s that it may be conducive to making great art. Or alleviating suffering. The two are linked, you know?

Smith initially caught my attention not because of his band’s music, but because of a particular incident a while back where he, alongside his indie-goth songstress girlfriend Sky Ferreira, got arrested for drug possession and numerous motor vehicle violations. To the frustration of many music blogs, he doesn’t like to talk about it much. Whatever the real story may have been, our powerful collective imagination has filled in the gaps and painted him as a druggy, tortured indie rock icon. Actually, icon’s the wrong word. He’d be an icon if his music were special. Until recently it wasn’t.

Enter Is the Is Are, the new album from Smith’s Brooklyn-based dream pop band DIIV. I say it’s his band, as it’s tempting to paint Smith as the sole creative force. After all, he’s the most visible and outspoken. But to be fair, the music reveals layers that were clear products of collaboration with his bandmates, notably Devin Perez, the bassist crucial to DIIV’s sound who happens to be a close friend of Smith’s (and who’s stirred up controversy himself). Still, though his bandmates can’t be ignored, DIIV seems preeminently Smith’s project: he holds credits for vocals, guitar, drums, art assistant, mixing, and production. He’s a distinct creative force drawing on his own life experiences and his vast, developed musical taste, providing a clear direction for the band to go in. For what it’s worth, he says he likes to drop acid before everyone else in a group so he can be the leader.

In a recent Pitchfork interview, Smith shares his thoughts on atonement after the aforementioned incident brought him infamy. “If I didn’t make a great record, then I’m done,” he says, sounding particularly career-minded. Is the Is Are doesn’t sound as contrived as you’d expect after hearing that. Smith embodies equal parts aspiring rock star and sincere songwriter: he yearns to be remembered and admired, but his music isn’t calculated for that purpose. He’s doing what he knows and loving what he does.

DIIV’s music inhabits the territory of Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth, occasionally foraying into motorik krautrock-indebted rhythms. That said, the songs are far shorter than those on your average Neu! release. If there’s a flaw in the record, it’s this. The band was aiming for a double album, and they still deliver one, but it’s clear there was a bit cut out from individual tracks in order to nudge the album in a more easily digestible pop direction. (But it’s cool. For uncompromising modern krautrock, there’s always Föllakzoid.)

Immediate comparisons to Ride’s dark shoegaze opus Nowhere arose when I first heard Is the Is Are. The two records come from a similar tradition—music that is woozy, dreamy, dark, occasionally destitute but still yearning, still capable of feeling, not yet ready to resign itself to utter darkness but familiar with the dark. In that sense, their sound is enveloping. Is the Is Are is one of the few “dream pop” albums I’ve listened to that is able to capture feelings associated with opiates, those of warmth and creeping sickness, and that immediately puts it in a druggy category separate from most modern indie music, which only occasionally veers into blatantly stoned or acid-fried territory (and most often with tongue in cheek). Much of Is the Is Are seems to revolve around Smith’s heroin use and subsequent laborious recovery, from the lyrical content (“I was high, and now I feel low” or the blunt “now I’m fucked to die in a world of shit”) to the continually shifting moodiness of the textured guitar work. The album’s lows and highs are dynamic, and Smith’s buried but still comprehensible vocals are halfway between conversational and struggling to be heard. Smith admits to obsessive mixing, and his efforts were fruitful.

DIIV’s sound is not unlike being underwater. If not literally like the physical and aural sensations of aquatic submersion, DIIV is instead able to relay an incredible approximation of feeling covered. This record is music as powerful metaphor; it swings wildly, yet never jarringly, from joy to melancholy, from pensiveness to resolution. It feels like being wrapped in the arms of someone or something that will love you as much as it can hate you and will hurt you as much as it can impart ecstasy. You know what I’m talking about.

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