Zachary Cole Smith has a lot of ambition for his music, or at least he says he does. The songwriter and principal player behind Brooklyn indie-rock band DIIV has been through quite a bit in the years since the band broke out in 2012, and in recent interviews leading up to the release of Is The Is Are, Smith has talked about that as important for both him and the band’s development. After listening to the album, though, one gets the impression it would have been wiser for Smith to temper his praise for his own work. The fact is that Is the Is Are is very much the sort of record one would have expected from DIIV, only with more songs and a few hints at what could have been.
The sort of jangle-pop that DIIV and several other bands get lumped into representing is an easy sound to like but not love. Songs tend to drift in and out of mind, leaving very little in terms of a lasting impression. I would hesitate to point to DIIV as the archetype for this style, but they definitely hold very close to it. On Oshin, the moments that moved away from this style were just that: moments, accents, nothing that would indicate a less conservative approach to songwriting. Is the Is Are has more of these moments, such as the squeals of feedback that pop in and out of “Bent (Roi’s Song)” and “Mire (Grant’s Song)”, most of Is the Is Are doesn’t break new ground or find new shades in the band’s palate. In fact, the only real breath of fresh air comes early on in the form of “Blue Boredom”, an evil little number that features a fairly atypical performance from Sky Ferreira.
Otherwise, this is a DIIV record, which means that there are jangly guitars, reverb, and Smith’s barely-audible vocals. At their best, DIIV have this sound down pat, and songs like “Under the Sun” and the title track are pleasing offerings of ringing indie-pop with a hint of Krautrock influences. It’s fine, but it’s all too familiar in the end. In that sense, Is the Is Are is, for all its faults, not the kind of record that’s worth getting frustrated over.
That is, it wouldn’t be a frustrating album if it weren’t for Smith’s promise of something greater. The man has claimed that the turbulent goings-on since Oshin’s release — including a drug arrest–inspired this album. Furthermore, given Smith’s open adoration of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, one would expect a more open album this time around. Alas, that’s not what we get here. If there is some sort of emotional bloodletting happening on Is the Is Are, it’s being obscured under a haze of reverberating guitars and willfully obtuse lyrics. It’s hard to tell if there’s any there there, despite Smith’s insistence. Either the album is emotionally barren, or Smith has failed to convey what he really feels in these songs.
At 17 tracks, Is the Is Are runs long. That tracklist has the appearance of some sort of grand statement, but that depends if 17 DIIV songs fit your notion of what a “grand statement is”. At its best, Is the Is Are is a fine album with plenty of immediate pleasures to offer. However, digging deeper won’t unveil anything really tangible. As much as Smith may say he wants to get real, he’s clearly more comfortable living in a hazy dream.