By Devon Chodzin ’19
Nearly four years after Oshin, the post-punk dreamers at DIIV have released Is the Is Are, a monstrous, 17-track sophomore album which features a surprisingly non-diverse array of songs. Not unlike Oshin, the most captivating part of most tracks on Is the Is Are is the systematically-arranged guitar lines. The layered guitar lines are especially pleasing in “Under the Sun,” a single which DIIV gifted to us in mid-December. Since mid-September, DIIV has released four singles from this album, which despite the album’s lack of intense diversity, have significant disparities between them. For example, “Bent (Roi’s Song)” and “Under the Sun,” two singles released in November and December respectively, differ widely in that “Bent” is rough, scratchy, and, for dreamy rock, kind of edgy, while “Under the Sun” is much more methodical and behaves like a 2010 shoegaze track SHOULD behave. “Bent,” on the other hand, brings forth some of the more unpleasant sounds which characterize the original shoegaze. In short, there’s really something for everyone here.
What’s so refreshing to me about Is the Is Are is that, frankly, it doesn’t belong in 2016. It sounds like what I listened to on repeat in 2012. Just within this academic year, we saw the explosive growth of nu-disco and other types of electro-pop, while Is the Is Are simply builds on the echoing sound they trademarked in 2012’s Oshin. Comparable groups include Wild Nothing or The War on Drugs, whose releases over the past four years elicited praise in the community but have, as of late, been looked upon with a little ennui. Sun Kil Moon’s legendary 2014 song “The War on Drugs: Suck my Cock” called the post-punk phenomenon “the whitest band I’ve ever heard,” and honestly, he’s not wrong. Perhaps some of the reason this guitar-layering indie-rock post-punk millennial-shoegaze has fallen slightly more out-of-fashion is because it’s been easily monopolized by young white guys. The lyrics from DIIV, The War on Drugs, and Wild Nothing all sound like what the twitter meme “Guy In Your MFA (@GuyInYourMFA)” would say in that they may be more pseudo-poetic than actually profound.
However, that doesn’t mean they’re not inventive. Efforts on the part of DIIV to be more inventive are very, very visible on Is the Is Are. “Blue Boredom (Sky’s Song)” features the brilliant synthpop siren Sky Ferreira, which is a collaboration I should have seen coming. It’s just the right amount of inventive and intra-genre to be logical. While the stylistic elements of each track on Is the Is Are are very similar to those on Oshin, the lengths to which the guitar layering and lyrical fuzzing are taken set Is the Is Are apart from the debut. It is obvious that frontman Zachary Cole Smith, who wrote over 150 new songs during the interlude between albums, is trying to take DIIV to new heights. In general, he succeeds.
Is the Is Are has received soft praise from major reviewers. Pitchfork generously bestowed an 8.1/10 on this album, already making it one of the top contenders for 2016’s list of best releases. Other reviewers declare Is the Is Are to be “decent but disappointing” citing the way the lyrics are, throughout the album, overwhelmed by the instrumental lines. This is definitely a staple in any DIIV record and, honestly, a staple in most records throughout this micro-genre, so it seems unlikely that vocals will ever really rise to aural supremacy in a DIIV record.
My favorite track is definitely “Loose Ends” frankly because, in part, it reminds me so much of other small-time hits in this genre of years past. The lines in each guitar take me back to the summers of 2012, 2013, and 2014. I love the melodramatic syncopation which stands prominent in the guitars and the strong presence in the bass. The song evokes a physical response in the form of, quite honestly, some of the saddest hipster dancing one would expect to see at a House of Blues show in mid-July. In an era where the boundaries of art are consistently pushed by those looking to become the next creative genius, “Loose Ends” stands as a testimony to the persistent and unapologetic existence of style. As said in the first law of thermodynamics, matter can never be created nor destroyed in any chemical reaction. This absolutely applies to art. While there’s undoubtedly new kinds of art being produced around the clock thanks to the synthesis or lysis of other art forms, the fact is that once that art materializes, there is nothing that will bring it 100% out of fashion. DIIV, through Is the Is Are, is keeping the post-punk dream of the first half of this decade alive and, if what the other reviewers are saying is right, thriving.
Overall, I’m content with the record. It has, honestly, a few too many low points to be considered a “great” record, but in truth, Is the Is Are succeeds as a stylistic indulgence and unwavering commitment to a genre which has been left alone for long due to its problematic lack of diversity (in both its musicians and its records). It’s certainly an achievement in post-punk and I have high hopes for DIIV in the years to come. I would, however, like to see fewer white guys fronting these post-punk projects, as I’m confident that post-punks of color are out there and have have something to offer that their white male counterparts might not offer. To be fair, this is not the only genre in the indie world that needs a close examination (for more on this issue, see Jacqueleen Eng’s article “The Problem with Sad Indie Trash”).
The whole album is available for a listen here on YouTube: