Walking Two Feet Above the Ground: DIIV – Is The Is Are, album review

Is The Is Are is a record born out of hardship and tumult. Coming four years behind Zachary Cole Smith’s breakout debut, Oshin, Is The Is Are describes the confusion & contradictions of stardom, addiction, early romance, dappled in shadows and clouds of reverbed guitar and distant vocals.

From Smith’s own mouth, he will tell you much has changed in the last four years, and guitar music isn’t precisely en vogue at the moment, as he told Pitchfork during an interview, “Guitar music isn’t what people are talking about, and I don’t know if it’s 100 percent what the world needs, My ambitions are higher, of course, but I have to consider all options, because I don’t know what will happen.”

So does the world need another distant, detached Dream Pop/New Wave romantic depressed shoegaze record?

In this instance, the answer is absolutely yes. We need Smith’s voice. And not only for its redemptive powers, but also for describing the journey to the edge of night, along the way.

It is tempting to talk about Is The Is Are in terms of its genesis, and, to judge this record fairly, you should at least be aware of the soil it sprung out of. After Oshin‘s widespread success, Smith found himself a celebrity, beginning a high-publicity relationship with singer Sky Ferreira (who features on Is The Is Are‘s “Blue Boredom”), became a Saint Laurent model, and cultivated an opiate dependancy that would have repercussions on all of these new developments.

Smith and Ferreira were busted with heroin and ecstacy in upstate New York in 2013 – costing Ferreira some modeling gigs, despite the fact the heroin wasn’t hers, and Smith his home of several years, when his landlord found out about the bust, over the radio. Three months later, of his own volition, Smith checked into rehab.

Most of Is The Is Are was conceived immediately following Smith’s release from rehab. Again, from his own mouth, his struggles with the law, addiction, and navigating an early relationship, all informed IITA. “I’m not a storyteller,” he says. “I’m just telling my own story, in a way.”

Musically, Is The Is Are has drawn innumerable comparisons to three bands – The Cure, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Sonic Youth. Pitchfork reviewer Ian Cohen put it rather memorably “The revelation of a 17-song tracklist promised scatter and sprawl, like a hybrid of Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me and Disintegration. However, this is more in the spirit of Seventeen Seconds to Pornography: gray, gloomy textures, depressive fatalism. And like those records, Is the Is Are doesn’t engage in fantasy or open up new worlds—it builds a nearly impenetrable wall around the self. Call it Requiem for a Dream-pop, dedicated to a gorgeous yet unglamorous portrayal of addiction.” 

The Sonic Youth corollary mainly comes in reference to “Blue Boredom”, featuring Sky Ferreira reprising Kim Gordon’s narration from “Death Valley ’69” off of Sonic Youth’s Bad Moon Rising, which Smith has cited as a sonic influence on Is The Is Are.

Both The Cure and Sonic Youth were great psychedelic bands, with extended, mind-melting jams, being rooted in existentialist philosophy and romantic poetry. Artful punks like The Cure and Sonic Youth were like the beatniks to the sprawling West Coast hash jams of the hippies. Like The Velvet Underground to the Grateful Dead. All drug addled, all rooted in ancient philosophy and great thought and weird music from all over, but coming out with a very different vibe.

Instead of the mellow pot and mushroom vibes of classic rock psychedelia, Is The Is Are is the sound for being awake for a few days, your head going all fuzzy around the edges, your eyes dilating until you’re seeing angels in the perpetual overcast. Is The Is Are is the sound of both detachment and intimacy. It is like walking two feet above the ground. Rather than being unemotional, however, sometimes you’re able to be even more engaged, without being flooded with emotions. It is a lovely sound, shrouded in mist – hooded and veiled.

Is The Is Are is primarily constructed around the glistening coils of Smith’s guitar, buttressed by Devin Ruben Perez’s throbbing, pulsing, strobing bass, and Colin Caulfield’s metronomic drumming. Stylistically, they blend the gauzy post-punk of mid-era The Cure with frequent outbursts of Kosmische, all held together and kept cohesive with Perez’s melodic 8th-note basslines. The whole thing is driving, relentless, propulsive, constantly moving forward. Its precise as a Swedish watch, but is prevented from being edgy or harsh by the washed-out production.

It’s not too cloudy, however. Oshin was a sea of echoes and reverb (which I also love) but Smith sought for Is The Is Are to be more “insistent”, at Sky Ferreria’s urging, drawing from a deeper lyrical well.

All in all, the album is a war of contradictions. It’s gentle and floaty and lovely as anything you’re likely to hear this year, while also being dark and dour and depressed, like on “Mire”, which features nearly Misfits-level of cartoonish ghoulishness, complete with cackling.  The guitar lines are all hyper-disciplined, detailed and precise, layered like a Joan Miró painting brought to life in midair, all around your ears, but the overall vibe is relaxed, floaty, mellow.

You can’t comfortably call Is The Is Are a druggy or a recovery record. It’s distant and disorienting, to be sure, but its also personal and insistent. And while guitar music might not be on the tip of everybody’s tongue, at the moment, leaning forward and listening to personal, interesting, poetic, well-executed, emotional, trippy, weird, aggressive, sad, exciting music definitely is. Perhaps more so than ever.

DIIV – Is The Is Are is now available on iTunes

—words by J Simpson