DIIV – ‘Is The Is Are” Review

Posted: by Riley

The best art is high-stakes art. When there’s something driving against an artist, it gives listeners a reason to feel invested in the art they’re consuming. We’re drawn to the ‘comeback story’ and the rebel spirit – hip-hop and punk consistently tell these stories, and rightly become the soundtracks of major social movements. However, indie rock is not generally a very high-stakes genre; in 2016, the term “indie rock” doesn’t even really mean anything. So does an indie rock band even have the capability of raising the stakes on their art in 2016? Back in 2013, DIIV’s Zachary Cole Smith and his girlfriend Sky Ferreira were arrested in an ugly situation that resulted in multiple charges, including drug possession. Following the arrest, the two were more prominent than they’d ever been, but were portrayed like a train wreck in the media. I won’t bore you with the details; you can read about that with a simple Google search if you haven’t already. For better or for worse, Cole set stakes for himself – from the beginning saying he needed to make great art to save himself. A short stint in rehab and a few years later, we now have a high-stakes indie rock record, DIIV’s Is The Is Are.

Zachary Cole Smith has always toed the line between passion and desperation when it comes to media. He loves his art in an almost self-destructive manner. He just wants so badly for everyone to love it the way he does. Is The Is Are is a 17-track, 63-minute guitar-rock Hail Mary. Smith throws everything he can into this LP, as if it were the last thing he’d ever make. He tirelessly expands the mystic DIIV blueprint, adding twinkling pianos and punched up bass lines to the band’s signature winding guitar work. Tonally, Is The Is Are is shades darker than their debut, and finds Cole stripped of his reverb, pushing his boyish whisper to a gravelly shout at times. His vocals are peculiar but affecting here; despondent drones are carefully phrased, turning muttered verses into catchy hooks like an indie rock Earl Sweatshirt. Smith’s best vocal performances come in the brightest corners of Is The Is Are’s sonic palette; his fluttery voice is particularly pleasant on songs like “Healthy Moon,” “Loose Ends,” and the title track. It is also important to note Sky Ferreira’s contribution to the LP, more for its poise than for the piece of music it fostered. “Blue Boredom” finds the pop star stepping into Is The Is Are’s world to play the role of herself, lending her hand as support but not as a savior; her appearance is understated and essential to Cole’s narrative.

DIIV have always had the strange capability to create music that is simultaneously sunny and cripplingly dark, much like the struggles Smith toils with on this record. The strongest indicator of Cole’s self awareness comes in the album highlight “Loose Ends,” where he offers the powerful “does it feel watered down? does it feel over now?” This poignant lyric finds Smith absorbing the world around him, then plummeting into his art to sort it out. He solemnly asks himself the same questions others ask him, omitting answers – he doesn’t have them. He demonstrates true intuitiveness, using two perspectives to illustrate his world. This emotional versatility is a thrilling victory, and makes good on the progress Cole needed in order to refer to Is The Is Are as a ‘comeback story,’ even if it’s a more honest depiction of person than the traditional ‘comeback story.’ The LP’s album cover is an apt representation of the music and the narrative at hand. The bright colors of drug use and creativity – separate but related – are sloppily arranged and set against pale gray; the only legible constituent is DIIV’s scrawled signature. Zachary Cole Smith says DIIV is “the real me.” Is The Is Are is a haphazard self-portrait fashioned in real-time as Smith struggles to discover himself in the wake of harmful addiction. Because of this, it is imperfect, but the best self-portraits hide their identity in the mistakes. Is The Is Are is a beautifully honest piece of high-stakes art that helps us see DIIV the way DIIV sees DIIV.

Score: 8.8

Best Tracks: “Healthy Moon,” “Is The Is Are,” “Under the Sun,” “Loose Ends.”

FFO: Wild Nothing, Real Estate, Nirvana