The double album: it is characterised as the zenith, a work of breath-taking ambition and creativity that cannot be contained, but is often created out of hubris and overindulgence. Whether it’s Have One on Me, a Speakerboxxx/The Love Below or a Stadium Arcadium, a double album is usually underwritten by a breadth of ideas and eclectic impulses, but its ultimate success or failure is determined by quality control.
DIIV’s Is the Is Are is a strange beast because it is a double album that is predicated on a lack of imagination.
Led by Zachary Cole Smith, the band already have one album to their credit. 2012’s Oshin is a pleasant take on Smithsian jangle pop stripped of the emotional and intellectual pungency – the Morrissey of it all – and diffused through the prism of chillwave. At 17 tracks and running over an hour long, Is the Is Are is Cole’s chance to show off his broadened palette, which now includes, well, a wider range of ’80s indie reference points.
The album’s meandering drones and punk squall will attract Sonic Youth comparisons, then Sky Ferreira shows up with her best Kim Gordon impression (‘Blue Boredom’) to make said comparisons completely obsolete. The noise and indiscriminate application of reverb fail to distract from the thinness of Cole’s song writing. Cole’s vocals are often obscured, and the guitar work is so monotonous that it is left to the rhythm section to inject any life into proceedings.
It’s a thankless task but bassist Devin Perez and drummer Ben Newman do admirable work in trying to elevate the album’s most inert stretches. On the lackadaisical ‘Bent’, for instance, single notes are left hanging from Cole and Andew Bailey’s guitars. Eventually they wilt, and the consolatory throb of the rhythm section cannot help but pop by comparison.
‘Take Your Time’ (eerily reminiscent of ‘Meat Is Murder’) shows there’s still some Marr in DIIV’s DNA, but it’s a love of breezy slacker rock that returns time and again to break up the more reverb-soaked stretches. ‘Out of Mind’ and ‘Under the Sun’ open the album in slight, sunny fashion, with a natural, driving momentum that the album’s more dissonant portions would kill on sight.
Refract these songs marginally and you get the likes of ‘Valentine’ and ‘Yr Not Far’ – sounding more like the Cure than Pavement. Slightly different, for sure, but ultimately comprised of the same parts, like wearing a fake moustache and expecting to go unnoticed. Repetition can be forgiven, but the weight of recycled ideas makes much of Is the Is Are forgettable.
‘Healthy Moon’ is able to transcend the sludge of mediocrity as the album’s clear centrepiece. It’s warm and enveloping as much as the rest of album leaves you cold. With a gorgeously simple, ascending riff on guitar and accompanying piano, the song stands out for its commitment to understatement. The rhythm section again works briskly, with motorik precision, providing a lovely contrast to the more leisurely, dream-like feeling provided in the song’s main thrust.
It all melts away to leave a silent, residual afterglow, but even that is sullied when the album closes true to form. Is the Is Are is a parasitic record, boasting threadbare song writing haphazardly concealed with a cavalcade of ideas shamelessly mined from indie’s past. There is no new twist to make Is the Is Are interesting or charming in its plagiarism, and every new variation lives a shorter half-life than its antecedents, sadly mirroring the listener’s tolerance levels.