Originally a solo project from Brooklyn-based ex-Darwin Deez and Beach Fossils touring guitarist Zachary Cole Smith, DIIV evolved from the live band Cole Smith put together when taking his self-penned songs on the road. Initially named Dive, they apparently changed their name to DIIV out of respect for Dirk Ivens and the original Dive, a 1990s Belgian industrial group, and their debut album Oshin was one of 2012’s most critically acclaimed records.
A compelling blend of murky, distorted shoegaze and sunny, jangling dream pop with a discreet but unmistakeable Krautrock undertow, Oshin was a grower; its tracks tended to creep up on the listener rather than lodge in the brain instantly. With a beatific, trance like mood rather than catchy melodies, it worked best as an immersive overall experience rather than as a collection of individual songs.
With follow up album Is the Is Are, Cole Smith continues in very much the same vein. He has been busy since Oshin – he claims to have written over 150 songs in the meantime – and those who enjoyed DIIV’s debut will not be disappointed here. But with 17 tracks and a more confident, ambitious scope, Is the Is Are does feel a bigger, more expansive record.
When approaching Is the Is Are, it’s also important to understand Cole Smith’s personal life over the last couple of years, which has been eventful to say the least. Since Oshin, he has been wrestling heroin addiction and has accrued several police charges (drug possession and driving a stolen vehicle without a licence, among others). Cole Smith then spent an 11 day stint in rehab in an attempt to clean up his act. What was understandably a period of intense internal struggle for DIIV’s front man is vividly captured in the songs on Is The Is Are, both lyrically and musically.
After an initial amp-crackling intro, Out of Mind is a lovely, graceful opener, very reminiscent of other critically lauded current US acts such as Real Estate or Kurt Vile with its spiralling, intricate guitar arpeggios and hushed, barely there vocals. Then on Under The Sun, the influences shift across the Atlantic and into northern mainland Europe with the rhythmic drone of Krautrock anchoring the song as it shifts into much more experimental waters.
As the album continues to unfold, the high quality threshold is maintained at first. Bent (Roi’s Song) brings to mind Mazzy Star’s woozy Velvet Underground-like dynamic, while Dopamine is an intense whirlpool of duelling guitars that is transcendentally powerful, a fitting backdrop to a song on which Cole Smith candidly describes his recovery from his heroin addiction.
After a while though, Is the Is Are does start to sag somewhat, with some of the tracks feeling very similar over the long running time of more than an hour; some judicious pruning would undoubtedly have helped. Welcome variation is provided by Cole Smith’s girlfriend Sky Ferreira, who contributes Kim Gordon doppelganger lead vocals on Blue Boredom as well as providing a ghostly counterpoint to her other half on other songs, such as the haunting Loose Ends.
Clearly a tormented soul, Is the Is Are is a bold attempt by Cole Smith to channel his pain into an epic, potentially career defining record. The end result is highly accomplished, viscerally honest and at times hypnotically beautiful, even if it ultimately doesn’t quite live up to its creator’s ambition.