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DIIV grasps at full potential with ‘Is the Is Are’

| Tuesday, February 2, 2016

diiv webSUSAN ZHU | The Observer

Whenever I’m making something I deeply care about, whether a work of writing or music, there’s a quiet desperation that hums at the core of my creative process. I think of all the artists who had already accomplished at 16 what I’m yet to do at 21. I think of the dreams I had as a kid and despair that I haven’t reached them. Even though I’m still so young, I feel immense pressure to fulfill my potential now. Sometimes it drives me to do great work. Sometimes it leaves me staring at a blank page.

That desperation screams from the pages of NME’s 2015 interview with Zachary Cole-Smith, frontman for Brooklyn guitar-rock band DIIV. Cole-Smith’s battles with drug abuse and subsequent writer’s block took hold of him after the release of DIIV’s excellent first record “Oshin.” His struggle to pull his life and music back together eventually lead to the creation of second LP “Is the Is Are,” which Cole-Smith views terrifyingly as his last chance to fulfill his potential. “I know I have to stay alive at least until the album’s done,” Cole-Smith brooded, “This is one shot at immortality if I ever have one. I know it’s by far the most important thing I’ll ever do.”

When that make-or-break energy manifests itself on “Is the Is Are,” DIIV shines brighter than ever before. The record’s most propulsive tracks craft masterworks of the dream-pop genre from reverb-heavy guitar hooks, understated vocal melodies and driving drums of “Oshin.” The guitar solos and instrumental bridge on upbeat numbers like “Out of Sight,” “Valentine” and the title track flow immaculately out of earworm verses and choruses. They recall the high moments of groups like “Murmur”-era R.E.M. and pre-“The Top” The Cure. The tracks are tight, catchy and in the case of clear highlights “Under the Sun” and “Dopamine,” something close to transcendent. Paired with haunting lyrics regarding Cole-Smith’s recovery — “Shots wringing out / I’m soaking / eardrums shaking and / years start weighing me down” — these tracks are emotionally engaging while still utterly enjoyable.

Where the record is less upbeat, the tracks tend to be slightly weaker. It’s not so much that DIIV fails to replace the urgency of faster tracks with other musical elements, but rather that those elements simply aren’t as engaging. On “Bent,” fuzzy production pushes the track to shoegaze levels and unleashes some gritty guitar riffs. “Blue Boredom” calls back to Sonic Youth’s drawled vocals while “Mire” and “Incarnate Devil” adopt the group’s chaotic, dissonant riffing. Other tracks, like the repetitive “Take Your Time” and the sleepy “Healthy Moon,” fall a bit flatter. However, even in the record’s less compelling moments, “Is the Is Are” simultaneously boasts a plethora of different ideas and approaches to songwriting and production without deviating from a cohesive sound.

It’s safe to say that “Is the Is Are” is too inconsistent to be the masterpiece that Zachary Cole-Smith dreamed of making. That being said, it hits higher highs than its predecessor “Oshin” and continues to hint at DIIV’s full potential. So long as the band continues to push itself towards greatness, it seems likely that DIIV is destined to create a classic record.

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