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DIIV's Is the Is Are is drowsy, disconcerting dream-pop

Zachary Cole Smith's magnum opus will overwhelm you if you're not careful

Sandy Kim

Do you believe in the law of diminishing musical returns? Listen to one song on Is the Is Are, the mammoth new album from Brooklyn quintet DIIV, and it’ll seem revelatory. Listen to another and you’ll recognize the band’s place in a proud tradition of narcotized guitar-pop, one that spans half a century. Get through five, and you’ll feel compelled to note their consistency; make it to 10, and the songs will start to blur together into a single ringing cloud.

It’s a consequence of frontman Zachary Cole Smith’s devotion to a specific, smothering sound: heavy-lidded bass lines, chiming guitar leads layered on top of each other like blankets, vocals dancing on the edge of intelligibility. The band's dream-pop is immaculate, but it's almost too effective; it runs the risk of sending its listeners to sleep.

Is the Is Are is DIIV’s second LP, and it’s the band’s first major release since their 2012 debut Oshin. The intervening years have been tumultuous, to say the least: Smith’s rapid rise was jeopardized by a September 2013 arrest for heroin and ecstasy possession in upstate New York alongside his girlfriend, the musician and model Sky Ferreira. His addiction was compromising his ability to write music, and Smith went to rehab in early 2014; he began writing dozens of songs upon leaving, each of them attempts to capture his fragility and emotional disconnection.

The band’s progress on a new album was derailed again last year by the discovery of racist, homophobic, and misogynistic messages posted by bassist Devin Ruben Perez on 4chan. Smith wrote that he was "fucking disgusted" by Perez’ statements, and it seemed like DIIV was on the brink of imploding again. (Perez is still in the band, though Smith has said his position "isn’t guaranteed" in recent interviews; it's a complicated situation.)

"If I didn't make a great record, then I'm done. That's it. I'm fucked."

Combine all of the extracurricular activity and Smith’s well-documented ambition — he’s drawn up comparisons to Nirvana, Cat Power, and Elliott Smith at various points — and there’s a tremendous amount of pressure being placed on Is the Is Are. (The album directly references some of those artists — "Bent (Roi's Song)" quotes Cat Power's "Nude as the News.") "I knew it was going to take a really good album to save me," Smith told Pitchfork. "That’s what made it so hard to write, and why it took so long. If I didn’t make a great record, then I’m done. That’s it. I’m fucked." What does a record need to be "great?" It might need double-length runtimes; it might need interludes; it might need a sturdy conceptual underpinning and a carefully considered structure.

Is the Is Are traces the arc of a heavy, all-consuming high: there’s the initial burst of euphoria, the pit-scraping doldrums, the cobwebbed morning-after. It also tiptoes its way through decades of guitar-focused, melody-centric rock music: call it "indie rock," call it "college rock," call it whatever you want. The line passes through the older Smith’s gentle, overlapping leads, My Bloody Valentine’s swirling fog, Sonic Youth’s art-damaged Beat poetry — Smith’s repeatedly cited Bad Moon Rising as an influence — and drowsy bits of post-punk. It’s reverent, respectful music. Ferreira guests on "Blue Boredom," one of the most explicit attempts at Kim Gordon karaoke you’ll ever hear; the chiming leads on songs like "Under the Sun" and "Healthy Moon" are just as sticky as anything you’d hear on Murmur or Reckoning.

Plunging into this album's world for an hour is daunting

These are all pleasant, engaging touchstones, and inspiration (even imitation) doesn’t have to be damning. But the album’s bulk, the specificity of its sound, and Smith’s unrelenting focus on rendering his personal turmoil make Is the Is Are feel oppressive. There’s something daunting about plunging into this album’s world for an hour. It means worrying about friends and lovers, hanging on the verge of collapse in a humid, poorly ventilated basement somewhere in Brooklyn. Smith might take that as a compliment: it means he’s brought the harrowing, cruel aspects of his struggle with addiction to life. But it also means the best way to experience Is the Is Are is through short, sporadic dips rather than total immersion. Warm fugue states can be fun until you realize you've gone too deep.