THERE ARE PLENTY of bands that have served as their own worst enemies. DIIV had all the makings of a band banging on the door to stardom—hooks for days, a distinctive aesthetic in a crowded field, an edgy frontman who has acquired his own mythos. So the wait between their debut and sophomore efforts was an unwelcome wrinkle. After curating one of the finer entries into the Captured Tracks discography, the Brooklyn genre-melders hit a few snags, most notably Zachary Cole Smith’s arrest in late 2013 and drummer Colby Hewitt’s departure due to drug addiction. It all made a one-and-done affair seem like a real possibility.
Is the Is Are’s opening line captures this sentiment perfectly: “You’re out of sight/And out of mind.” DIIV were essentially off the grid for three years, more than enough time to be supplanted by a new rival. But rather than a distraction, the tabloid drama surrounding the band became the fodder for their new album. Is the Is Are takes everything that DIIV did well on Oshin, deepens it, broadens it, fiddles with more permutations, and does it all to excess. This isn’t a pensive summer album like Oshin; there’s an underlying darkness here. Even on the superficially upbeat tracks, it’s pervasive.
This isn’t surprising given the album’s troubled gestation. Minor keys abound as Smith’s dig deep into a range of personal and interpersonal troubles. Is the Is Are is sad and serious, but you wouldn’t know that from its opening suite. “Out of Mind” and “Under the Sun” roar out of the gates, and the latter could melt the snow off of your lawn. Both tracks are drenched in the band’s characteristic melodic and production sensibilities, with inexhaustible, stratospheric riffs. “Under the Sun”, described by Smith as a love song, is particularly sweeping. Along with lead single “Dopamine” it’s easily the strongest track on the album.
From there, the band’s recognizably blurred take on shoegaze, jangle and dream pop reigns across a massive 63-minute runtime. There’s the slightly manic guitar jabbing on the title track, the Sonic Youth rip-off “Blue Boredom” (Smith’s girlfriend Sky Ferreira guests), the nocturnal melancholy of “Healthy Moon”. Closer “Waste of Breath” is a clipped ending that immediately brings to mind Slowdive. It’s all very listenable, but aside from a handful of tracks the whole thing doesn’t leave much of a mark. On a sonic level, this double album could easily be split into dark, downbeat tracks and wistful, high-energy ones.
Is the Is Are is so front-loaded that its final two-thirds run together somewhat. The gritty pair of “Mire” and “Incarnate Devil”, for instance, are simply too repetitive and low-spirited to add anything of value to the mix. In navigating the eddies and whorls, you never lose the feeling that Smith made this more for himself than anyone else. The occasional tempo shift does little to conceal that he’s building some pretty high walls around his sound and production. With a full hour of content to work from, Smith has plenty of opportunities to break out of this reverb-soaked box, but never takes them.
In the lead-up to the release of Is the Is Are, Smith has been quite active on the band’s blog in an attempt to provide as much context he can: “I’ve talked about [my own personal relationship with drugs] in the press as openly as I can because it is so important for me that this album register to people as being as true and as honest and as rooted in reality as possible.” Is the Is Are is certainly honest, but it could use a little more optimism, and the music’s circuitousness only adds to the feeling that a single issue is being poked and prodded to exhaustion. In creating an album focused on the theme of personal excesses, Smith forgot to curb his musical ones. C PLUS