DIIV’s frontman Zachary Cole Smith describes his band’s second album Is the Is Are in terms usually reserved for divinity. In recent interviews he’s referred to the LP as “a light at the end of a tunnel” and “a chance at redemption,” and said that he was “blessed” even to live to its recording. On that last count, he could be right. From the depths of his chemical dependencies — largely opioid — his band’s debut sounded how he felt; a dizzy, doubled-over, dopesick daydream dragged in the messy wake of his famously tortured forerunners. But after an arrest that threatened his partner Sky Ferreira’s well-being (as well as his own), and a self-imposed stint in rehab, he’s back with another record and a blind faith that’ll sound familiar to those who’ve spent time around those in recovery. It’s not a higher power that’s saved him, but a sophomore full-length.
You wouldn’t guess that though, from just listening to the labyrinthine marathon of his 17-track, 63-minute double LP, which largely trades in the same sort of subterranean indie-pop structures that filled his previous work. Even quick interstitials like “(F**k)” double down on the the damnation, winding the little sort of instrumentals that some have perceived as peaceful somnambulant guitar rock into anxious bursts and sudden stops. Even during long passages of piston-pumping motorik — like on “Valentine” or “Healthy Moon” — it doesn’t feel like mechanized locomotion, but smooth loops of a coin circling a drain, its face peering deep into the depths below.
Oshin created its compelling obscurity out of dazed repetition and fearful suggestion — a Lake Placid-esque suggestion that a glassy-blue surface can be terrifying for all the things it secrets away beneath. That’s true here too, in the Faustian (both the bargain and the band) provocations of mossy songs like “Incarnate Devil” and “Bent (Roi’s Song).” But Smith’s vocals are finally allowed to peek over the fuzzy fractal spiderwebs of his and fellow guitarist Andrew Bailey’s lead work. And the void lurking behind these songs only seems more threatening now that its craggy edges are more clearly delineated. He never says it more clearly than on “Dust,” when he’s “f**ked to die in a world of s**t,” but this is a collection of songs that see little sunlight, and when they do it’s in contrast — because Smith himself is a “cloud” to blot it away (“Dopamine”). These are, by and large, cautionary tales, suggestions of the years that addiction and self-deprivation can strip from you — milky, curdled ballads that lay bare his former lifestyle’s worst consequences.
At its marathon length, Is the Is Are can feel like a chore, but it probably should. To live within the skin of Smith’s most harrowing moments seems a terrifying thing because he says so, but also because you can feel it in the quotidian exercises of new drummer Ben Newman’s grid-like repetitions, in each of Smith’s own weary sighs, in the deadened thrum of Devin Ruben Perez’s bass work. In short, it’s no wonder that they chose to call a track “Mire.” And yet this beautiful slog has its brighter spots, care of a breathy, Ferreira-aided “Blue Boredom,” and the Ferreira-inspired “Under the Sun,” which finds Smith “free” and “awake,” in the midst of the record’s myriad darknesses. It’s no wonder the process felt redemptive for Smith; to exorcise years of mounting bleakness is no doubt a relief, but the resulting record is one that’s compelling for the exact opposite reasons. It’s not a light at the end of a tunnel, but luminescence creeping through the crack of a doorway — illuminating just enough to let you realize just how dark everything still is.