In 2007, Zachary Cole Smith — lead singer and figurehead of Brooklyn buzz band DIIV — returned to his birthplace of New York City after growing up in Connecticut and bailing on a higher education at Hampshire College. Shortly after his arrival in the Big Apple, Smith tried to get a job at a pizza place. The guy behind the counter didn’t have a position for him, but he liked his look, and so he asked Smith if he played bass, and if he’d like to join his band. Smith didn’t play bass, but he said yes anyway.
That was nearly ten years and several albums in the past, and yet Smith is still saying yes to things for which he’s unqualified, coasting by on his eye for style. DIIV’s second album, Is The Is Are, is where his aesthetic over-ambition finally catches up to him, resulting in a 17-track, hour-plus mess of slight songwriting so thickly veiled in reverb as to be choked out of existence.
The above anecdote is taken from Pitchfork’s recent profile of Smith, a revelatory piece of writing not for its insights into the artist’s process, but because of the way is exposes all of Smith’s well-constructed artifices of seriousness: the Kurt Cobain aspirations materialized in an open copy of a commemorative Cobain issue of Rolling Stone; the self-awareness about his Biggest Loser-inspired style; the fact that his very entrance into music is thanks to being singled out for his looks not only at that pizza spot but also on the L train, a kind of Bushwickian version of the classic “spotted on the street” tale that seems to have launched the careers of too many supermodels. And that obvious, aesthetic seriousness persists on the album, all the way from the blank title to its DIY cover art to the rampant parentheticals in the tracklist. Oh, it also ruins nearly all of the songs.
On Is The Is Are, Smith manages to successfully channel his idol Cobain inasmuch as, for the 65 minutes we spend in the world of the album, we are all that baby on the cover of Nevermind, stuck in a pool of reverb, and well-crafted songs are the dollar bill, floating just out of reach. Album opener “Out of Mind” kicks off with a misleading classic rock ‘n’ roll stick count — one, two, three — before plunging us into its soupy depths. “Under the Sun” does its part to bring us back up, barely, with a song that sounds like Kurt Vile in a k-hole. And then “Bent (Roi’s Song)” brings us right back down again. That trend is found throughout, each track offering only the tease of an “up” to its predecessor’s deep “down,” the only deviation being the distant influences Smith decides to bury beneath layers of fuzz.
Grunge is there (in spirit), and I’d put money on new drummer Ben Newman’s Joy Division fandom, but DIIV’s attention has gone generically ’90s, eying My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, and the Smashing Pumpkins all over. He even sounds a little like Tom Petty on “Dopamine.” “Blue Boredom,” featuring Smith’s more talented other half, Sky Ferreira, sounds a little like Hole, though its title is too apt: it’s the only boring track I’ve ever heard from Ferreira.
All of this may seem pedantic, like I’m letting Smith’s story color my listening to the album. One could argue that the brilliance of Smith is in his ability to take this influences and channel them into something greater, something new. That was true — not here, but on DIIV’s first album, 2012’s Oshin, which outs itself in the title: “It’s like being in an ocean, man, only not.”
That album’s “Air Conditioning” swaggers its way across four-and-a-half minutes of something that might as well be called country. “How Long Have You Known,” one of the band’s signature tracks, is the best Beach Fossils song ever written. And “Wait” plays with washed-out ’80s synths in a way that comes close to being beautiful; it’s a sound that’s sorely missed on this sophomore album. The point is, on Oshin, DIIV was mixing influences as disparate as cocaine and Oxycodone to create unique, sometimes schizophrenic songs. On Is The Is Are, Smith piles depressant on top of depressant; there are few highs to be had.
In that same profile, Smith talks about an incident in which DIIV’s bassist Devin Ruben Perez was outed as having made misogynistic remarks about Perfect Pussy’s lead singer, Meredith Graves, along with other generally racist and homophobic statements, on a 4chan message board. Smith felt pressure to remove Perez from the band, but didn’t, because he felt sympathy for Perez, who Smith calls a “genius,” and was also afraid of changing the dynamic of the band.
And therein lies the problem with Is The Is Are, an album that took four years to make: Smith, suddenly thrust into the limelight of the indie world, was afraid to change. And so, rather than continue toying around with shoegaze takes on genre songs, as he did, intentionally or not, on Oshin, he instead doubled down on the safer shoegaze and threw away the riskier genre, creating a sprawling dystopia of an album with no signs of life. It’s as if he’s discarded his thrifted, cut-up Dylan shirt, only to replace it with an oversized, plain white tee he was gifted by Hedi Slimane: the body’s the same, but the spirit has gone.