“Ambitious” is often used as a back-handed compliment by music critics, applicable when an artist is unsuccessful, in spite of shooting for the moon. However, there’s no other way to describe Is The Is Are, an album that could come to define the heights ambition can lead to. It’s a record born of torment experienced in the public eye, and is one of the most shockingly frank albums about addiction since Back to Black.
The 3 and 1/2 years since DIIV released Oshin have not been kind to the members of the band. Lead singer Zachary Cole Smith was arrested on drug charges in 2013, along with Sky Ferreira, his partner. Bassist David Ruben Perez came under fire for posting racist and sexist comments on 4chan. Former drummer Colby Hewitt left the band in 2015 due to struggles with addiction (although he does play on some songs on Is This Is Are). In an interview in 2015, Smith stated that “I have to to stay alive until the album’s done.” Is This Is Are was evidently very difficult to make, and that struggle informs the tone and style of the record. At 17 tracks and 63 minutes, the album is unapologetically huge, and given Smith’s comments, it seems as though he’s tried to create his magnum opus.
The sound of Is This Is Are is at times ethereal and blissful, and at times dark and foreboding, yet it is always cohesive. The bright guitars on opener Out of Mind are matched by rolling drums, but the pretty arrangement masks the darkness of the song, as Smith looks back on the damage his actions have caused. Blue Boredom (Sky’s Song) features lead vocals from Sky Ferreira, doing her best Kim Gordon impression over the top of fuzzy, psychedelic guitars. Sonic Youth is a big touchstone for the album, from the alternately delayed and distorted guitars, to the ominous tone. Whilst most of the songs hide their darkness behind the beauty of the arrangements and melodies, there’s a stretch of songs in the middle of the record that are more directly threatening. The minor key guitar chugging of Mire (Grant’s Song) sounds huge and foreboding, recalling the operatic menace of Neon Bible.
Lyrically, Smith claims to have influenced by Kurt Cobain, and it shows up both in his phrasing and subject matter. The songs largely chronicle Smith’s battle with heroin addiction, and feel serious and personal to a fault.The lyrics of lead single Dopamine see him suffering from withdrawal – “shots wringing out, I’m soaking” – whilst pondering his affect he has on his partner – “you’re the sun and I’m your cloud”. The bridge in which Smith repeats “would you give your 81st year”, the number getting lower with each line, is as simple and powerful an expression of the consequences of drug abuse as there has ever been. Bent (Roi’s Song) is an ode to a friend (presumably Roi), detailing their mutual experiences with rehab – “and I saw you after a decent spell in a private hell”. The lyrics are direct and bleak, with nary a moment of light in the entire tracklist. This style is almost overwhelming, but one gets the feeling that may be the point. If Smith intends to immerse the listener is his experiences, then it’s only fitting that the album should be a gruelling listen.
The strengths of Is This Is Are are also its weaknesses. The album is long, and the tracks sometimes blur together, but without that length it would lose its epic, sprawling quality. The lyrics are humourless and grim, but any element of brevity would render the album inert, and it would lose its harrowing appeal. Smith is obviously striving to create music that’s “important”, and whilst he succeeds, it means the album tends to lack self-awareness. Whether or not an individual responds to Is This Is Are is irrelevant however, as the album exists simply as a reflection of its creator’s experience. Smith and his band mates have poured their turmoil and grief into this music, and it’s an arresting, invigorating journey.