At first listen, Is The Is Are is but a slight departure from DIIV’s 2012 debut, featuring breathy vocals barely float above the guitar melodies that have defined the band for years. With a runtime of 63 minutes, the signature sound makes Is The Is Are a comfortable commitment. Longtime DIIV fans will find little to complain about with this album, though a few may stop to ask: what the hell took so long?
Those who regularly reads music news will remember when frontman Zachary Cole Smith and his girlfriend Sky Ferreira were arrested in upstate New York on misdemeanor charges of heroin possession in 2013. The couple was riding dirty in a stolen van en route to a music festival, and though Cole Smith took responsibility for both the drugs and the vehicle, Ferreira’s reputation took a hard hit as well. The singer and model, who was only 21 at the time, lost contracts with several major labels once they got wind of her involvement in the arrest. Media coverage of the arrest consistently depicted both Smith and Ferreira as drugged-out losers, ugly products of substance glorification in the music industry.
As a standalone event, Smith’s brush with the law would have been bad enough for the band. Unfortunately, the ordeal was hardly the first of DIIV’s roadblocks. Not only did the arrest mark a particularly harsh rock bottom in Smith’s struggle with opioid addiction, but it also came on the heels of a failed attempt to use drug-fueled creativity to record a new album in San Francisco. Defeated, humiliated, and existentially wracked with guilt, Cole Smith found himself ordered to twelve days in chemical dependency treatment in January 2014, effectively setting DIIV on a road to uncertainty.
Whether Is The Is Are came to fruition in spite of Smith’s stint in rehab or because of it is unclear. In the two years since the incident, he has written hundreds of songs for this album, driven by the need to release a perfect product to atone for his very public mistakes. Whittled down to 17 tracks, the resulting record is a reflection on Smith’s attempts at recovery, thinly disguised as a DIIV album.
In an interview with VICE’s i-D this past October, Cole Smith stated that he intended the album to be a cautionary tale, a chance for him to “explain to people where [he’s] coming from – what happened.” The lyrics of Is The Is Are darkly convey a story of Smith’s relationship with heroin, an unglamorous depiction of the road to recovery. Lines like “Got so high I finally felt like myself” and “I know I gotta kick but I can’t get sick” paint a bleak portrait of drug use not often seen in rock music. Any glimpses of hope are tongue-in-cheek at best, always twinged with an air of nihilism. The album’s final track, “Waste of Breath,” is nearly a light at the end of the tunnel, but instead claims “It would be a waste of breath to tell a man who / believes in me that he’s got something better to do,” perfectly encapsulating an addict’s tendency to reject the support of others. In sharp contrast to DIIV’s first album, Is The Is Are trades in seductive metaphors for heroin for raw descriptions of overdoses: the sweating, shaking, and ringing ears. DIIV hardly aims to be the new face of Narcotics Anonymous, and Is The Is Are is by no means a sermon for sobriety. Yet its raw expression of Cole Smith’s experience falls right in line with recovery culture, the success of which relies on brutal honesty in the confessional exchange of stories.
Intriguingly, the musical style of the album remains diametrically opposed to the lyrical content. Quite frankly, Is The Is Are is exactly the sort music you’d want to get high to – reverberating dream-pop that melts right into your ears. Smith’s boyish voice often fades to incoherency behind interweaving guitar lines, making it easy to tune out his heartbreaking words. Listening to the album in its entirety is kind of like watching a Stanley Kubrick film, as its richness can backfire and cause you to get lost in your own thoughts. A few key tracks help to cut through the haze, however. The punchy guitar riffs on “Valentine” wakes listeners from the spoken-word dream that is “Blue Boredom,” a song that features Sky Ferreira. The dissonant instrumental “(Fuck)” serves a similar purpose. Softer songs such as “Take Your Time” are the album’s hidden gems, and the final track is downright velvety, albeit anti-climactic.
Is The Is Are does not immediately come off as a concept album, but by the third or fourth listen – and a quick trip to a lyric website – it becomes obvious that this is the musical equivalent of a heroin fix. It’s exactly what DIIV fans have been craving since Oshin’s release in 2012; it warms from the inside out; it leaves you wanting more. Listeners can only hope for a steady supply going forward, as the band’s future remains murky as ever as they embark on their international tour. Despite the constant uncertainty of the rock outfit’s trajectory, Is The Is Are is reason enough to believe in DIIV, no matter what form they may take in the years to come.