No matter how hard it’s resisted, an artist’s image impacts the way their music is interpreted. The persona surrounding the voice can greatly elevate the all-around character of the musician, but when their face becomes defamed, it can make for a cheapened embodiment of what could have been. Of course, for some artists (namely Kanye West) the ego and the antics doesn’t affect the quality of the music. But potentially worse than the defamation of image is when an artist adorns a hoax of a persona and the public eats it up, leaving the at-one-time earnestness to morph into a caricatured portrayal devoid of believability. This is, of course, the story of Zachary Cole-Smith; an artist whose initial descriptors topped off at “troubled but genuine”, but in four years has skyrocketed to a level of torture only Kurt Cobain could truly empathize with.
With the release of Oshin back in 2012, DIIV showcased promise without delving far enough into their sound to give a complete picture of their future. There were moments that evoked feelings of excitement and nostalgia, but they were often shrouded by the outweighing moments of boredom. As a debut, it generated enough buzz to give the group credibility and hope for their sophomore release, but still left a palpable pit in the stomachs of listeners hoping for a band to recapture the dream pop mentality of Cocteau Twins and The Cure. Now, DIIV has given us a complete picture of their intentions with their follow-up Is the Is Are, and it’s a reaffirmation of all the fears that come with exploiting the dream pop motif.
It’s easy to get lost in Is the Is Are, not because it’s so encapsulating or entrancing, but because of its overwhelming inability to show distinction. Both instrumentally and lyrically, it’s tough to note one song from another. Every moment is borne from the same moderate tempo, complete with an identical glaze of lightly airy aesthetics whose safeness becomes annoyingly inoffensive after its seventeenth regurgitation. The tracks feature Cole-Smith’s brand of wispy vocalization, perfectly aiding to the album’s amalgamation of mediocrity and indiscernibility. And as far as lyrical content goes, the songs boil down to one of two types: vague romanticism and opiate daydreams.
It’s no secret Cole-Smith is a heroin addict. He’s mentioned it a multitude of times across both of DIIV’s releases. Lead single “Dopamine”, admittedly the best track off Is the Is Are, candidly describes the withdrawal symptoms and juxtaposed unparalleled highs that come with continued abuse. In one of Cole-Smith’s most devastating moments, he rhetorically asks whether the addiction is worth the guarantee of shaving years off your life. Initially musing “Would you give your 81st year/For a glimpse of heaven, now and here?”, he continues to drop down the life expectancy of his listener as they continue their unremitting heroin usage until finally asking “Would you give your 34th year/For a glimpse of heaven, now and here?”
Cole-Smith’s firsthand experience as a heroin user is a double-edged sword, helping capture that breeziness of opiate euphoria but simultaneously evoking the strung-out lack of ambition and progression only a junkie holds capable of. The dreamy sounds of the genre have always lent themselves fairly easily to the highs associated with heroin and painkillers. Albums like The Soft Bulletin and Nowhere elicit its musical equivalence without ever debasing its poignancy by literally citing the drugs. DIIV takes the opposite approach, stripping away the potential of poeticism by talking down to its listeners and explaining its stance in the most blatant way possible.
But it’s not just drug addiction that DIIV falls short of expressing with a sense of emotional authenticity. Cole-Smith is a romantic at heart, the kind of romantic that, in his mind, reaches Cobainian levels of love-addled, plagued artistry. The songs that abstain from dabbling in DIIV’s typical topics revolve around his muse, his Courtney Love: Sky Ferreira. “Under the Sun” is the most obviously intended song for Ferreira, with the track featuring saccharine-laden tinges of pop to underscore Cole-Smith’s happiness. And yet despite its intentions, it’s this song that best illustrates the biggest problems with Is the Is Are: cloying sensibilities and an unbearable pseudo-artistry, topped off with a faux sense of restraint that’s found in the barebones approach to songwriting.
Though Zachary Cole-Smith insists that the path to sobriety is the true momentum behind Is the Is Are, it’s the unshakably pulsating fauxness that really resonates throughout. In every regard, the album feels fake. The stripped-down lyrics never feel held back as a result of bearing too much burden; they feel like a product of laziness. The identical instrumentation only furthers this sense of indolence. But the biggest problem doesn’t lie in the delivery; it lays in the aura that front man Cole-Smith exudes.
– Zach W.