When you hear a band’s unreleased new material in a live setting, you’re probably making some immediate conclusions before it sees a recorded release.
When I saw Brooklyn dream-pop outfit DIIV late last year, their single “Dopamine” was already out for their long-awaited second album, which successfully put the band back on my radar. Though “Dopamine” was really good, I had trepidation towards any other new material as any listener of theirs would, but when the band played mostly new songs during their set, not one failed to get me hooked in, I was immediately sold on Is The Is Are before it even came out.
To those who are unfamiliar, DIIV is erstwhile Beach Fossils guitarist Zachary Cole Smith’s brainchild, which transcended Brooklyn DIY celebrity to becoming a major staple in indie rock with their much-lauded debut, Oshin. This record’s shimmering dream pop is replete with phenomenal guitar melodies, Smith’s layered, ethereal vocals and propulsive song structuring; Oshin, along with the burgeoning band behind it, created a slew of acolytes that still hopelessly pastiche their unique blend of shoegaze, post-punk and krautrock.
While they got much-deserved success from this album, there were a couple years of radio silence from Smith due to his personal struggles with drug addiction and creative block. After facing his demons and embarking on the tumultuous path of recovery, Smith returned with a candid double album that serves as a treatise on his addiction and coming to peace with it, the result is Is The Is Are, the exciting new chapter into the DIIV-verse.
Instead of leaving mystery around the highly anticipated album, they released a delectable smorgasbord of singles from the record that give a really good perspective as to the how the record sounds. Which they certainly did, I came into the record with dangerously high expectations and, luckily, was not disappointed.
What stood out to me when listening to the singles zeroth to release was that for this record Smith had returned with sharper songs that commanded your attention much more than most of the material on the previous album, while maintaining the group’s signature dreaminess.
The basslines provided by Devin Perez are much more melodic and driving than previous material, which is apparent in the album’s opener “Out of Mind” when the rhythm section perfectly kicks off the song and the album that follows, Smith’s vocals here are a delicate and reverb-laden invitation to listen to his story.
The buoyant, insatiably catchy “Under The Sun” follows nicely with another rolling rhythm section, but Smith and Andrew Bailey’s guitars will grab your attention with the intoxicating riffs that come out of them.
Smith’s lyrics on this album are rather sullen; whether reflecting on a friend’s addiction (“Bent (Roi’s Song)”) or his own (“Dopamine”), Smith provided a fairly comprehensive story on his experiences.
“And I lost you when you said one hit couldn’t hurt a bit.” Smith sings on “Bent (Roi’s Song),” there are many poignant moments on this record but this track can rock your very foundation. After this one and the mesmerizing “Dopamine” comes a very Sonic Youth-inspired duet between Smith and his girlfriend, singer Sky Ferreira, called “Blue Boredom” that features the two going back and forth with unambiguous, deadpan talk-singing over textural guitars and a subdued rhythm section.
A favorite from the first half has to be “Yr Not Far,” this one I had to come back to over and over because it’s so goddamn catchy. The indelible melody here has this cinematic feel to it, you’d expect this track to score the crucial scene when the boy realizes the one he loved was in front of him the whole time or some saccharine nonsense like that. Make no mistake, this track’s incredible instrumental and Smith’s bleary-eyed, succinct vocals make it a gorgeous standout for the album.
Following this is the especially hypnotic “Take Your Time,” which sees some the album’s best guitar work, then it segues smoothly into the titular cut of the record, which has a sort of Neu! krautrock touch it. This tune is energetic yet spacey, relying more on echo-y reverb than a clear guitar melody.
Things take a turn for the grunge in “Mire (Grant’s Song),” the intro for this song builds and builds until the guitar crunches into the head bang worthy verse, this track is loaded with 90’s nostalgia in it’s very technical instrumentation. Everything about this track, including the submerged guitar in the song’s coda, makes it an incredible listen.
All the tracks that follow are really good, especially “Healthy Moon,” which had to be my favorite from the entire album. The melody for this song was truly evocative, listening through was like traversing a long and windy road in my own dream world, the way the instrumental transmutes into piano keys here is utterly serene.
A fugacious interlude piece, “(F**k),” only adds to the momentum that is built on this side of the LP. From the navel gazing “Incarnate Devil” to the bittersweet “Waste Of Breath,” the second half of the album is loaded with dejected but wonderfully crafted songs.
Is The Is Are is somewhere between wistful and hopeful, Smith’s lyrics here reflect a lot of hurt, but also clarity. It is clear he wanted to create an album to prove all naysayers who thought he would succumb to his addiction wrong, which I think he did here. The instrumentals here sound much more fine tuned and versatile than they were on the previous album, and for a whopping 17 tracks, there had to be improvements in this area.
64 minutes of dream pop may sound a bit onerous but listening to this record multiple times it is still a wonderful experience because Smith and his band deftly provided songs that hid virtuoso level playing under ostensibly simple song structure.
The only issue here, much like Oshin, is that the vocals can get lost in the mix too often. Some moments the vocals are crystal clear but more often than not they become nebulous and difficult to find under the typically demanding instrumental. Despite that, the songs where this is an issue are still incredible because the instrumentals compensate for the dearth of clear vocals.
Instrumentally speaking, this is their best work yet, the crystalline guitars become more textural rather than attention seeking, which is a notable downfall of guitar-based music, the basslines are more melodic in the way you would hear it in a Joy Division song and the drums are just flat-out incendiary.
This album proves that DIIV is still a formidable force in indie rock, despite all the adversity Smith has dealt with, he has come out on top with a brilliant work that is both reflective on past wrongs and sonically focused on a successful road ahead.
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