In a 2016 interview with Pitchfork Media, singer-guitarist Zachary Cole Smith describes a personal connection to his music: “I knew it was going to take a really good album to save me. That’s what made it so hard to write, and why it took so long. If I didn’t make a great record, then I’m done.” The 31 year-old New York City native is best known for his unorthodox take on the guitar, performing with bands DIIV, Beach Fossils, and Darwin Deez. However, the September of 2013 brought complications to Smith’s life as he was arrested for heroin possession and sentenced to treatment in the Connect. High Watch Recovery Center that following January.
There, the prescribed regiment of methadone left Smith feeling more physically ill than the addiction that brought him there. Methadone’s side effects of dizziness and paranoia coupled with the severe muscle pain and cold sweats of heroin withdrawal led Smith to leave High Watch as soon as he was allowed, twelve days after his check-in. While this may not initially appear as ample recovery time for opiate abuse, the typical time for the body to fully metastasize and detox from heroin is only six days. The 12 days that Smith spent were void of any rock star glamour and more akin to the dolor of Irvine Welsh’s “Trainspotting.”
In 2015, Smith told NME that “I respect [rehabilitation] and it does work, but it doesn’t do it for me. I can’t take part in anything where the first step is admitting you’re powerless. You’re not. It’s about empowering yourself to get better.” While Smith maintains sobriety since entering rehabilitation, he claims that working with the band DIIV has been the crux of his recovery. Mere days from its Feb. 5 release, DIIV’s new album “Is the Is Are” serves as a document of Smith reclaiming his life.
Taking the reins as singer, songwriter, producer, and guitarist, DIIV is Smith’s main creative outlet, and “Is the Is Are” is DIIV’s second full-length album. Writing and recording this record has been a seemingly interminable process, with a handful of its tracks like “Dust” being in rotation in live sets since the summer of 2013. Returning to New York City with a clear head after his stint in rehabilitation, Smith’s work ethic achieved its zenith. The next two years of his life would be spent finishing on “Is the Is Are,” a project that is equal parts music and therapy.
DIIV began as Smith’s solo project in 2011, but quickly gained traction on behalf of his resume with other acts. In 2012, DIIV released “Oshin,” a rock album informed by the grunge of Nirvana and the dream pop of the Cocteau Twins powered by the motorik beats of Neu. Smith’s technical mastery and near-textbook knowledge of krautrock in particular led to Noisey interviewing him for a 2015 episode of “Under the Influence,” a documentary series in which musicians chronicle the styles and history of their inspirations.
While “Is the Is Are” is slated for a Feb. 5 release date from Captured Tracks, Smith has been unable to wait, reaching out to fans through the band’s social media accounts and also publications such as Fader, NME, and Pitchfork Media to talk about addiction and the capacity for a person to heal. To further tease the new record, DIIV has been sporadically leaking new songs to the public on their SoundCloud account. The band initially released five singles, but on Friday, Jan. 29, DIIV made the entire album available to stream through the Guardian.
For example, “Bent (Roi’s Song)” is effective through disparity, the dissonant guitar leads of the verse are contrasted by the sunshine pop of an instrumental chorus. Smith’s vocals are presented at the front of the mix, unobscured by the cavernous reverb of the band’s previous record. Yet, Smith does not sing with the commanding presence of Kim Gordon or Kurt Cobain. His haggard mumble carries defeat, singing that “I fought my mind to keep my life, but my body’s putting up a tougher fight.” Eerily enough, the track was inspired by a psychic who warned Smith that prolonged substance use would lead to death, a topic that Smith does not hide his worry from on “Is the Is Are.”
Contrasting this, “Mire (Grant’s Song)” does not show the listener any trace of hope. The driving bassline and percussion serve as a lynchpin over which a maelstrom of voices sing and pivot. Occasionally, the backing harmonies drop out, and Smith’s typically mellow voice breaks into a haunting scream. The song does not find itself at an explosive cadence, rather, it fades away, parallel to Smith’s recovery and unlike his former “live fast, die young” attitude.
Melancholy platitudes may serve as the exterior for the new record, as DIIV navigates addiction and the path to recovery. However, the core of “Is the Is Are” is a commentary on survival, an artifact demonstrating the power of music as a healer. To treat the album as an hour-long “woe is me” statement downplays the life of the man who wrote it. Zachary Cole Smith engages in a battle with himself, and music is the modus operandi by which he has reclaimed his life.
Jeffrey Holmes is a fourth-year student majoring in philosophy. They can be reached at JH791223@wcupa.edu.