Basement Dwelling: “Is The Is Are” by DIIV

Heroin. For such a horrible substance, a lot of great art has been influenced by it. The Velvet Underground wrote a song about it (“Heroin”). The Flaming Lips made their best record under the influence of it (The Soft Bulletin). Acclaimed books have been translated into acclaimed movies about it (Trainspotting). DIIV’s (pronounced “dive”) new record Is The Is Are is a record about, well, you guessed it…heroin addiction.

Created in light of the arrest of DIIV songwriter Zachary Cole Smith and his girlfriend Sky Ferriera for drug possession, Is The Is Are is a 17-track concept album that documents addiction in DIIV’s hazy, white-washed indie rock sound, which in this context, creates a literal soundscape akin to being strung out on smack. It’s a grim listen, but a highly rewarding one from an indie act that had a lot to prove, and had a lot riding on this album.

Although I am a fan of DIIV (I love their first record, 2012’s Oshin), I can be the first to admit that I understand why a lot of people don’t enjoy them. Zachary Cole Smith is not the greatest songwriter in the world, and DIIV has pretty much used an admittedly repetitious sound for their entire career. A lot of people see this as boring, and I totally understand.

Then you have others who are turned off to the band just by Smith’s persona, that of being the new Kurt Cobain in the world of indie music. Smith is a self-destructive figure who has gotten a lot of heat in the press but maintains a cult-like fan base that adore him and the sounds he creates. While I never view someone’s work in such a trivial way, I can also understand how this can put a lot of people off to DIIV. The genius thing about Is The Is Are is that DIIV uses these characteristics — which can be seen as flaws — in their favor.

While not the bold musical leap that Smith promised the record would be in interviews leading up to its release, Is The Is Are does have a stronger sense of variety and meatiness to it when compared to the band’s earlier work. From the bright jangle pop of ”Under The Sun,” to the indie rock murk of tracks like “Bent (Roi’s Song)” and “Dust,” and the almost ballad-like “Healthy Moon,” DIIV manages to show a growth in musical range while at the same time remaining in their comfort zone. It’s pretty impressive.

One thing that really stands out on this record is the obvious worship of early-era Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine, most notably on “Blue Boredom (Sky’s Song).” If you played that song for me without telling me who was performing it, I would have guessed it was a b-side from Evol-era Sonic Youth. From the structure of the song itself to the fact that guest vocalist Sky Ferriera sounds just like Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon here, it’s a really nice homage.

What kills some of the momentum on this record, however, is how the song structures across the board feel a little too similar to each other. When you have an album with this flaw, and the record in question is over an hour long, it could be disastrous. On Is The Is Are, this flaw is almost disastrous, as once you get towards the end of the record, it starts to feel like you’re hearing the same songs from earlier in the tracklisting over and over. Thankfully, the rad-ness of the penultimate track, “Dust,” makes everything all right again just before the finale of the record.

When you boil it down, DIIV’s music — and this record in particular — isn’t supposed to rely on song structure. At its core, DIIV is a project about feeling, texture, flourishes, and details in music and how they can and should evoke awe in a band’s work. This has really set them apart from a lot of other acts in the indie music world.

DIIV as a whole is an experience piece, and when their music is used the way it is on Is The Is Are — to paint a picture of despair, addiction, and hurting others due to your bad influence — that experience becomes even more powerful. This album is kind of like an addictive substance within itself; you know it’s not the best thing for you, but it’s a pleasurable experience, and one that you feel the need to return to because it’s so alluring. This substance, though, is totally good for you. So, feel free to drop the needle…and give in.


— Dan Fiorio, Music Blogger

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