Review by Michael O'Neill
Addiction is one hell of an obstacle to overcome, and it never really goes away.
That’s the message behind Is the Is Are, DIIV’s sophomore album and first release since their 2012 debut Oshin. In the four-year interim, band leader Zachary Cole Smith landed in rehab after a high-profile arrest for heroin possession. His long-term girlfriend Sky Ferreira, a respected musician in her own right, was also booked for ecstasy in the same incident. The public portrait of the pair quickly (and unfairly) shifted from promising young artists to reckless junkies. Is the Is Are was born in the aftermath, with Smith telling Pitchfork, “I knew it was going to take a really good album to save me.” By and large, he’s accomplished his goal with Is the Is Are.
As one would expect, themes of drug dependence pervade the record, with Smith speaking candidly about both his experiences with heroin and his attempts to escape it. On lead single “Dopamine,” he explains part of what got him hooked in the first place: “Got so high I finally felt like myself.” At the same time, however, Smith understands how damaging his habit is: “Would you give your 34th year / For a glimpse of heaven, now and here?” The lyric comes at the end of a bridge throughout which Smith reconciles with his accelerating mortality, as he works his way from trading away his 81st year down to his 34th, all for a high. On “Dust,” Smith describes a trip (which turns out to be an overdose) that starts off blissfully before plunging into the abyss: “Drowning in air, light, floating up in flight / Then it gets too bright, and your body’s a brick / You fall.” These tracks, along with the record as a whole, paint a picture of somebody who can’t avoid the temptation of drugs despite being wary of the dangers they pose.
Musically, Is the Is Are builds off the beach-gaze foundation laid by the band’s debut. Tight yet floaty guitars dominate tracks like “Loose Ends” and “Healthy Moon,” while a constant whirr of feedback constructs a background for the similarly-titled duo “Bent (Roi’s Song)” and “Mire (Grant’s Song).” Joy Division-esque bass riffs are the driving force behind several songs, including album highlight “Under the Sun” - probably the best single DIIV’s ever produced. Smith delivers sleepy vocals that manage to sound weary but not jaded, and it makes those moments when he injects more thrust into his voice all the more stirring. Sky Ferreira also shows up to give her best Kim Gordon impression on “Blue Boredom,” with DIIV backing her to play the role of the rest of Sonic Youth.
At times, Is the Is Are can sound like a decidedly repetitive record: many songs feature verses that repeat with the same lyrics split by guitar breaks, lack choruses (though not hooks), and are backed by similar bass lines and drum beats. The hour-long runtime and seventeen-song tracklist compound this feeling. But perhaps there’s a larger purpose to this; perhaps Smith is employing this extended feeling of repetition to represent the Groundhog Day-like nature of addiction. He falls back into his own musical cliches, his comfort zone, time and time again, just as he continued to turn back to drugs over and over. There’s also the strong chance that I’m reading too far into this, and the musical recurrences and overblown length of the album are the result of an artist unable to break out of his own patterns and unaware of when to stop - characteristics that would help explain Smith’s substance abuse.
Elaborate metaphors notwithstanding, the album can still drag on a bit too long, and some of what’s on here seems unnecessary. Case in point: a sixteen-second instrumental called “(Fuck)” serves as a standalone track, and fellow interlude “(Napa)” is barely any more interesting. Songs like these two and the monotonous “Yr Not Far” (which merely repeats the line “On your own / You’re not far”) seem half-baked, and really don’t need to be on this record. Generally, however, the other songs are strong enough to warrant their inclusion. In other words, while there’s a bit of fat that could be trimmed off the tracklist, it’s easy to overlook given the bevy of quality singles DIIV have cranked out here.
All in all, with Is the Is Are Zachary Cole Smith has crafted a considerably successful follow-up record in the wake of personal tragedy. It’s an album bridled with enthusiasm (as evidenced by Smith’s lengthy Tumblr posts that came with each pre-released single) and showcases a young musician’s creativity and abilities. Much like Smith and his relationship with drugs, the record is full of seemingly paradoxical dualities: focused yet unfocused, compact yet wide-open, confused yet assured, teetering yet steady. It’s the type of album only a restless spirit and mind like Smith’s could have made, owning a nonsensical title inspired by both by concrete poetry and a popular meme. Best of all, it’s chock-full of well-written guitar rock that provides an honest window into the world of a recovering drug addict. Is the Is Are may seem like a simple record at first glance, but put it under the magnifying glass and you’ll see that there’s a lot more to DIIV’s world than summery guitar riffs.