Diiv tapped into that wandering soul we all have buried deep down(some deeper than others) back in 2012 when they gave us their big and dreamy debut Oshin. Guitars swelled in waves of reverb, as did pretty much everything else, as Zachary Cole Smith sang songs like he was lost in thought while emoting into the microphone. For being a straightforward alternative guitar rock record, Oshin was a pretty stunning affair. It took Smith nearly four years to follow-up that debut. Between personal issues, band issues, and wanting to change things up stylistically it seemed that maybe that sophomore effort may never happen. Fortunately Smith and his bandmates got back on track and have finally given us the 17-track opus Is The Is Are.
That stylistic change Zachary Cole Smith had discussed in the years leading up to Is The Is Are really didn’t come about, and that’s evident in the opening seconds of “Out Of Mind”. Clean and crisp guitar, bass, and drums roll in as Cole’s vocals melt into the background of a song that sounds like early R.E.M. “Under The Sun” keeps things going along those early 80s alternative lines, albeit feeling more upbeat than usual. If you were looking for the first great guitar album of the year, Is The Is Are delivers. Jangly guitar weaves in and out of driving bass lines while the drums keep everything in line. “Bent(Roi’s Song)” is where the darkness that permeates Smith’s world shows through a bit. “I saw you with a very loose grip on your tight ship/And I left you with a very big mess then I watched it progress” Smith sings over squealing guitar and a loping bass line. There’s an aloofness to the vocals that gives the song an almost ghostly feel. I don’t know what sort of personal issues the guy’s got, but it’s pretty obvious he’s working some of them out here. “Dopamine” pushes and pulls along with the vigor of classic Cure. “Blue Boredom(with Sky Ferreira)” is the breathy and dark collaboration between Diiv and Zachary Cole Smith’s girlfriend. It’s arty, sexy stuff that would’ve been just at home on Ferreira’s album is it is here.
From this point on, it’s sort of the same throughout. I think as a single record Is The Is Are would’ve been a future classic. Once you get about three quarters the way through you feel the desperation in the air. It’s as if once the record ends Smith thinks he’s going to disappear into the ether, so he just keeps piling on the songs. Unfortunately for a double LP to truly work there needs to be some variety in sound and vision. There needs to be a narrative of flow or you end up feeling like you just heard a single LP twice, as opposed to a single, long vision. There’s not a bad song here. They’re all good, but there’s not much variety when you get down to it. It’s a continuous sigh for an hour, with the occasional hint of light. “Valentine” is a cool and foreboding, while “Yr Not Far” sounds like some of that classic Captured Tracks fare. “Is The Is Are” is a driving title track that brings krautrock kings NEU! to mind, while album closer “Waste Of Breath” feels like an empty shrug to someone’s plea to get better. It’s all good, but can be draining in one full hour listening session.
I don’t blame Diiv for going for it here. I’m not going to fault any artist for being ambitious. Who knows when or if you’ll get another chance to make your mark. Is The Is Are is a great album. I think it may have been even greater pared down to 11 or 12 songs. A little self-editing can go a long way.