My first impressions of Is The Is Are by DIIV (or 'DIV', as my girlfriend Vicky calls them) were uncertain. There were clearly some very strong tunes in there somewhere, but the album's washy, reverb-heavy production initially made it hard for me to really enjoy those cool riffs and insistent motorik beats. I longed for a rawer, more live-sounding version of the album, with fewer guitar effects and a more rough 'n' ready mix that might allow me to hear Zachary Cole Smith's lyrics properly.
That title is rubbish, too. A nonsensical string of stopwords with an awkward glottal stop wodged uncomfortably in the middle doesn't exactly endear me to your creative vision, Mr Smith.
I was almost ready to give up on ITIA, but last night, I read the album's Wikipedia entry and it gave those 17 tracks a bit of context. DIIV, and Smith in particular, seemingly had a hell of a time whilst making this record; tour dates were cancelled due to exhaustion, sessions in San Francisco were abandoned, and Smith was arrested for possession of a controlled substance, which led to a stint in rehab. The bassist briefly found himself at the centre of a minor maelstrom after allegedly posting an assortment of bigoted messages on 4chan. Oh, and the drummer quit the band.
Recording your second album is a notoriously difficult stunt at the best of times, and such events can't have made things any easier for DIIV. But the storms that battered this album's journey from initial conception to general release does cast ITIA's sound in an interesting light; here's something that Smith said to the NME in an interview last summer:
"I know I have to stay alive at least until the album's done...I know it's by far the most important thing I'll ever do. That's very empowering, no matter what fucked-up shit is going on.
"Every day is a struggle, but I have to be the best I can, stay sober and finish this record."Once you've read that, this album's sound - the delay that ricochets off the edges of each song, the muffled melodies that just barely penetrate the record's fuzzy, hall-of-mirrors aura - starts to sound very apt indeed. As I mentioned several paragraphs ago, the songs underneath it all are very strong indeed (my personal favourites are Valentine, Yr Not Far, and the title track), and while I would still love to hear a dryer mix of Is The Is Are, I've come to appreciate that the record's turbulent, slightly hazy sound is the perfect reflection of the turbulent experiences that spawned it, and the uncertainty that everyone involved must have felt as to whether or not it would ever see the light of day.
Even the clunky meaninglessness of the title is forgiveable given the album's apparent mission statement. "I wanted it to show humanity, imperfect and flawed," said Smith once his magnum opus had finally materialised in stores, and to his credit, Is The Is Are more or less achieves that goal - as an impressionistic portrait of a very imperfect, very flawed, and very challenging few years, it works very well indeed.