DIIV return with more ideas, less reverb on sophomore LP
By Ben Weinstein /// Arts Editor
“Consciousness is only possible through change; change is only possible through movement.”
Is The Is Are is a record perched on the brink of self-destruction, a place that had become all too real to Cole Smith throughout the past several years. Perhaps it’s become a tiresome trope of rock music: the discontented, drug-addled frontman fucks-up in the public eye, prompting a hard fought recovery- or at least attempted recovery. Released nearly a year and a half after being arrested with heroin in an unregistered vehicle, Is The Is Are is not an album by a fully recovered addict. As he distresses, “I feel like I’m / Fighting for my life” on the record’s title track, the phrase “once an addict, always an addict” rings painfully true.
Throughout the record’s hour long duration, the unwavering 4/4 drumming is almost entirely unrelenting, save for a few moments on the record’s second half. While some may waste no time in attributing this unvarying sound to laziness, I have little doubt that it was a very conscious choice on Cole’s part. If the band’s debut Oshin didn’t make it clear how heavily influenced by Krautrock he is, Cole’s recent appearance in the Noisey mini documentary on the German experimental movement makes the lineage easy to trace. When describing his admiration of the seminal group Neu!, he praises the band’s “driving, forward-moving” sound, going on to describe how “it goes along at… a real steady pace and every sound is just incredible.” Is The Is Are embodies this forward momentum that Krautrock is built on, and in turn, the momentum embodies his desire for change.
While this album is by no means a declaration of victory, it’s immediately recognizable that Cole, has, in fact, changed a great deal since Oshin’s 2012 release. Vocally and lyrically we find him coming more into focus, letting go of much of the reverb that obscured him on DIIV’s debut. This is a testament to Cole not only having more to say, but also being in a position where he is able to say it. On “Under the Sun,” one of the singles that he’s described as “a moment of levity” within the album, we find a rare instance in which Cole sounds like he has fully overcome his struggle. “To be free, be awake/ Big breath that you can’t fake/ Once you’ve begun.” Although this may only be one brief moment in an overwhelmingly dark album, it’s clear that Cole has taken great strides from the position he was in less than two years ago. He sounds clear-headed, awake; conscious.
The battle with addiction is not an easy one, and Cole is acutely aware of this. As he croons, “Take your time, hear em out,” it may very well be a reminder to himself about the importance of patience. Is The Is Are provides plenty of evidence that Cole came into his sophomore LP already armed with a clearer mind and more ideas. The melodies on tracks like “Dopamine” and “Out of Mind” are among the strongest we’ve heard from him thus far, and the album also benefits from a far wider array of sounds. Between the Sonic Youth inspired “Blue Boredom (Sky’s Song)” featuring Sky Ferreira giving her best Kim Gordon impression, the heavy and dismal direction of “Mire (Grant’s Song),” or Cole’s half-rapped, desperate vocals on “Dust,” he undoubtedly realized the danger of a monotonous double-LP. While he gracefully sidestepped monotony, the biggest problem he had to overcome to make Is The Is Are was clearly himself.
Cole has changed substantially, but the new record shows- if nothing else- that he still has a long way to go. DIIV have remained one of the most dynamic bands making music today, and if Cole keeps following the driving rhythm that carries his new album, further change will follow as well. Whether consciousness will come with that, we’ll need to wait and see.