In most cases, bands have a specific short form label that follows them from blog to blog. For instance, Keep Shelly in Athens are almost always refereed to as the “Greek pop duo” and Liars usually get some variation on “experimental art-house rockers.” In the lead up to the release of DIIV’s Oshin, however, there was a notable lack of continuity in how the band was referenced. They got everything from “dream pop quartet” to “krautrock inspired brookylnites,” with the occasional “atmospheric” thrown in. It was an omen, which could have suggested that Oshin would have compositional depth beyond what is typically found on a guitar-pop record. Conversely, it could have just been enchanted music writers trying to come up with a new way of framing a Brooklyn band that uses guitar, bass, and drums. In this case, the omens were in our favor. Oshin is an album of meticulously crafted melodies that ebb and flow with purpose, oscillating seamlessly between shimmering pop, pounding new-wave, and dream-inducing shoegaze.
When Zachary Cole Smith started DIIV it was called Dive and it was simply a collection of his bedroom experiments. Apparently, he holed himself up in a Brooklyn apartment, wrote music, and absorbed the work of artists such as Lucinda Williams, Nirvana, Jandek, Hart Crane, and James Baldwin. These eclectic sounds and words combined with the heat of the summer must have made for a unique creative atmosphere. One where everything swirls together and absurdity might be mistaken for genius. It sounds like a precarious environment for a songwriter but Smith was able to navigate it successfully. He seems to have imbibed a certain creative ambition via his surroundings; yet his songs remain focused and taut. Oshin is not always tonally coherent (parts are beachy and fun while others are far more sinister) but, in some respect, that is what makes DIIV stand out from its other guitar-pop contemporaries.
The album opens with “(Drunn),” a pleasing primer for what is to come. Smith is joined by Devin Ruben Perez on bass, Andrew Bailey on guitar, and Colby Hewitt (formerly of Smith Westerns) on drums. The opening track finds all the members establishing their relationship with one another. Perez and Hewitt skillfully set the melodic and rhythmic center as Bailey and Smith deliver one buoyant melody after another. “(Drunn)” relies heavily on its bass line – in fact Perez’s work is excellent throughout – but its clear that the harmonic interplay between Hewitt and Smith is the instrumental core of DIIV’s sound. Their licks are often intricately intertwined and there are very few moments when the guitar arrangement feels lazy or unoriginal. Songs like “How Long Have You Known?” and “Follow” are true guitar-pop gems that are as well executed as anything from Beach Fossils or Real Estate. Further, the guitar work is restrained on tracks that aim to be more brooding, “Past Lives”, “Earthboy”, and “Home,” as well as primitive and searching on the more psychedelic jams, “Wait” and “Oshin (Subsume).” Thus the guitars are the crux of Oshin, but they are also a starting point for exploring everything else the album has to offer.
Oshin intermittently channels some of the more interesting sub-genres of the 80s and 90s. “Wait” opens with a hazy, new-wave vibe, something that The Cure or Joy Division might have done in their more poppy phases. However, the song closes with a chaotic free fall, as Smith’s voice is washed away by reverb and Jesus and Mary Chain-esque distortion. The jagged edges of Grunge make their way onto “(Druun, Pt. II)” and “Doused,” the latter of which hangs like a dark cloud over the gorgeous and meditative closing tune, “Home”. All these genres that DIIV borrow from are notably effect laden but they also have a primal energy and, at their best, an attention to detail that alludes the casual listener. Oshin picks up on this trend. Although it does not focus on perfecting one particular aesthetic, as did many of the seminal albums that it draws from, it does thrust itself adeptly into the modes it chooses. This makes for a less powerful album as a whole but it also means that DIIV are able to explore more diverse creative tendencies (i.e. make a whole lot of awesome songs).
At its best, Oshin feels like standing in a cavernous room with hazy beams of light coming in from slits in the walls. The light is immediate and pleasing yet there is also the sense that one is ensnared in something ominous. The final track, “Home”, is built around this eery juxtaposition. Smith sings “you’ll never have a home/ you’ll never have a home” before completing the tautology with the very next line: “till you go home.” It is a simple yet haunting sentiment, like something a recovering drug addict scribbles on a napkin and reads every time he feels weak. Wrapped around this refrain is a warm, drifting melody that laps up against Smith’s words. Everything about the song is peaceful – the sparkling guitar, the fluid bass line, even Smith’s tone of voice – yet the words being spoken are subtly off-putting. It is an atmospherically complex song that, much like the rest of the album, invites earnest and thoughtful speculation. Then again, you could just ignore all that and enjoy it while doing something else on the Internet. So I guess everybody’s happy?