Album Review: DIIV – Is The Is Are?

After the past five years of difficult absence, no one would blame this Brooklyn five-piece if they decided to hang up the strings and leave their grungy jingles in the trash. However, they have arisen with a more grown up and lyrically fronted album which still contains the tropical and whiney riffs we all adore. DIIV was founded in 2011 after a solo project from their lead singer Zachary Cole Smith was well received. The band are named after the Nirvana song ‘Dive’ and Smith’s large aesthetic resemblance to Kurt Cobain offers clues as to why they chose this name.

Their debut album Oshin was released in 2011. This pushed lyrics to the back to focus on the squeaky and melodic loops that made them so popular among those who like to listen to jangle pop and retreat words to the backs of their minds. The album was so well received that the band acquired their television debut in 2012 on Letterman, performing their track ‘Doused‘. With a strong first album and record label to work off, the dream pop sun was shining on this grungy post-punk rock band from New York and a new album was expected in 2013.


The next few years would prove very different from the promising future they had been all but guaranteed. The resemblance with Kurt Cobain did not stop at eye level for lead singer Smith, who found himself in a struggle with drugs. On September 13th, Smith and his model girlfriend Sky Ferreira were arrested in Smith’s unlicensed van and charged with possession of heroin and ecstasy. Smith has been documented as saying that Sky is “the best thing I have”. This led Smith to rehab and put further setbacks on any new record.

Troubled past

In December 2014 the band faced an online backlash when their bassist posted questionable remarks on 4chan, an action which put his – and the new album’s – future into the spotlight. And in recent months, the long-time drummer of the band Colby Hewitt has been dropped to allow him to deal with his struggle with drugs.

Smith wanted to give something back to those who supported DIIV. Here we are in February 2016, and the band has released their new 17 song-strong album. He describes the new album:

“It is a diverse record, it is a happy record, a sad record, a happysad, sadhappy, mad, glad, quiet, mad, dark, glad, poppy, fast, slow, heavy, fast, peaceful, angry, chaotic, beautiful, lost/found, ugly, dry, wet, fuck, fast, dead, heartbroken, in love, loud, quiet, loud, loudquiet, quietloud, happy, mad, quiet, fuck, and loud record.”


An optimistic feeling prevails from the start with ‘Out of Mind’, containing a less distant take on lyrics with the same characteristic riffs that DIIV are so successful at producing. “But I’ll be fine, when it’s time I’ll know what to do” is a stand-out lyric, highlighting the new confidence that the band is seeking. Next comes ‘Under the Sun’, again the up-tempo feeling continues with plucky guitar ostinatos and lyrics containing the sun.

This nostalgic feeling takes a substantial break with the next few tracks and focuses on the struggles that have hung around Smith’s conscience in recent years. ‘Bent (Roi’s Song)’ is an attempt to explain the struggle with drugs and beating addiction. The song has a lonely and hollowed feeling with an assortment of whiney guitars and off-tune vocals which gives a slow and wallowing atmosphere. In an album statement, Smith described the song as being “about a lot of people, including myself, and our struggles along the path to clarity, sanity, and sobriety”. He also mentioned that this track gives a taste of the new venture on the album and “removes the vocal reverb that has graced all our previous output” and that Bent “places lyrical content at the forefront, and it starts to hint at the more diverse sonic palette that defines Is The Is Are”.

Imagery of addiction and withdrawal

The following track ‘Dopamine’ also references addiction and withdrawal, again placing lyrics at the front, with a more up-beat tempo. The record is centred on the image of an addict suffering from the pain of withdrawal from heroin: sweating intensely “I’m soaking”, sensitive to noise “eardrums shaking” and being weighed down emotionally from past years of drug use.

The fifth track we encounter, ‘Blue Boredom’, features Sky Ferreira. Smith’s girlfriend, Ferreira, is an American rock star who also models for Marc Jacobs, and her performance in this track has ties to the punk-rock which was so popular in the 80s. The track is one of the most difficult to interpret lyrically but still contains enough clever thuds on the drums and moody bass to ensure it will delight your ears. Number six on the album, ‘Valentine’, is also most likely referring to Ferreira, and her support for Smith during his tenure with addiction and rehabilitation. The fact that these tracks are so spatially adjacent and so central on the album is not likely to be a coincidence, considering the respect and worship shown by Smith towards Ferreira. A touching sentiment, at least.


The theme of addiction and withdrawal continues into the eighth track ‘Take Your Time’. Here we have a return to the melody-fronted character that was so prominent on Oshin. However, the song abolishes the worry that lyrics can be abducted by the layering of instruments, with there being a large expressive message. The focus in this is on the process of being in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). It contains lyrics like “Take your time, hear ’em out, how they went to go about to give it up and find yourself in time” and  “The circle up to circle out what’s in your mind, then take your time” which most likely refer to the slow and frustrating process of using AA to achieve sobriety.

New direction for the band

‘Is the Is Are’ is track number nine and the title track of this 17 song journey. Lyrically fronted, the song is jumpy and hasty. It is a prime example of the new vibe that they are presenting to us on this new album, and it works perfectly as a break between the addiction-centred tracks surrounding it. Surely they have achieved the feat of letting us all know how bad withdrawal is, right?

Apparently not quite yet, as track number ten deals again with sobriety and sanity. ‘Mire (Grant’s song)’ contains lyrics such as, “I was high, but now I feel low, my own private I dunno” again centring on the difficult road to recovery from addiction. Of course, it contains the grumpy bass mixed with eclectic twangs which defines DIIV’s music.

‘Healthy Moon’ is track number thirteen on the album and is one of the strongest lyrically and melodically. It contains a soft mix of grand piano and guitar squeal, and a distant cluster of drum sounds which is very different from what DIIV has created in the past. The track seems to refer to the late indie-folk artist Elliott Smith who died in 2003 and whose posthumous album New Moon was released in 2007. Elliot Smith had a great influence on Zachary Cole Smith and this would provide an explanation for the layering on ‘Healthy Moon’.

Zachary Cole Smith, DIIV, LIVE, IS THE IS ARE

Number 14, ‘Loose Ends’, contains distorted lyrics which lets the riffs take centre stage, to remind us all of the initial DIIV that originated five years ago. “Do you feel watered down? Do you feel older now?” is a prominent lyric in this song. ‘Dust’ is the penultimate record on the album, and again brings the focus back to heroin addiction. “Left me choked and white in a patch of light” and “I know I gotta kick but I can’t get sick” have strong resemblances to the effects of heroin overdose. It also contains the lyric “The only way to be quiet is to be quick”, a line which is taken from the Frank O’Hara poem, Poetry. A reminder of Smith’s fondness of art and poetry. 

Return to the familiar

The record ends with ‘Waste Of Breath’, which brings the one hour and three minutes to a close. “It’s no good it would be a waste of breath to tell a man that he’s got something better to do” seems to refer to the advice that Smith received from others whilst recovering from his several addictions. Of course, it contains the jangles and drums which are characteristic of DIIV.

OVERALL: 8/10 – An excellent blend of story-telling lyrics, ear-adoring riffs, cranky bass and beat-defining drums which show the grown up but still adolescent personality that this American rock band with a troubled past are trying to pursue.

Is The Is Are? is available to buy and stream now. If you like this why not try: Jaws, Wild Nothing, Day Wave, Beach Fossils.

What do you think of Is The Is Are? Let us know in the comments below!