DIIV is a band that has always teetered on the precipice of indie darling status. Their 2012 debut, Oshin, was pivotal in establishing label Captured Tracks, facilitated the development of its artists such as Mac DeMarco, Beach Fossils, and Craft Spells, as well an incoming wave of new Dream Pop bands. It was an opulent album that was textured, gorgeous, and lead by an ethos of guitar over vocals. The lyrics were ambiguous, yet moving, with impersonal lyrics that left room for the listener to project meaning to. Many consider it to be a classic and one of the best dream pop albums of all time. However, DIIV’s trajectory would be stifled by vocalist and songwriter Zachary Cole Smith’s problem with drug addiction. In 2013, Smith along with then girlfriend, Sky Ferreira, was arrested for criminal possession of heroin and Smith was sentenced to a short mandatory rehab.
Smith’s struggle with addiction would have a profound affect on his life and the formulation of DIIV’s 2016 album, Is The Is Are. The recording sessions of the album were messy, with missed dates and the eventual departure of then drummer, Colby Hewitt, due to his own drug addiction. The album was different from Oshin in that the lyrics felt more personal and less abstract with songs like “Dopamine”, which candidly details Smith’s experience with heroin addiction and the ways it strained his relationships. “Would you give me your 45th year, for a glimpse of heaven now and here? Would you give me your 34th year, for a glimpse of heaven now and here?” Smith wrote as he contemplated the gradual shortening of his life his addiction would cause. Considering the somber nature of the subject matter, it was noteworthy that the album’s instrumentation was glimmering and spacey. The guitars were intricately layered, with cleaner production that made the album sound airier and more open than Oshin.
Smith’s grapple with addiction would not end here. Shortly after the release of Is The Is Are, Smith would check himself into a full-time rehabilitation center which would result in successful treatment for his disease and reshape his songwriting. He would look back and see Is The Is Are as a lie. One that made light of his own addiction.
In DIIV’s third album, Deceiver, the duress from Smith’s experiences in rehab are apparent throughout. The album’s sound is rough, crunchy and heavy, akin to In Utero era Nirvana or early Smashing Pumpkins. Album opener “Horsehead” is a caustic introduction that lacks none of the melody from previous releases. Lead single “Skin Game”, which sounds like a lamenting Sonic Youth, sees DIIV’s ability to effortlessly weave melodies and hooks intact. The lyrics elaborate on Smith finding strength through helping others. Addiction is a vicious cycle, one that is difficult to escape. Once you begin trying to fill a void, no matter how harmful something is or how aware you are of the self-destruction, it may not be able to amount to the temporary reprieve the fixation of your addiction can give— “I can help you, it’s how I help myself”, he sings on one of the breaks.
Other songs like “For the Guilty” are more bleak, and see Smith ruminating on his past—”Curtained in with arms outspread, I was a stranger in my bed. Shut away and getting thin, I was a stranger in my skin”. “Blankenship”, the penultimate track, sees DIIV lash out violently at capitalism with scathing criticism and uses energy mogul, Don Blankenship, as its lyrical lightening rod. It also features one of DIIV’s heaviest riffs that is built on the back of their signature dreamy guitar chords. All of this accumulates in the closing track, “Acheron”, which sounds like an internal war. “Leave my body among the poppies, I’m nailed to your flaws, you were my god”, Smith spouts before guitars wail painfully until the album fades. This final track is the boiling over of the conflicted emotions and anxiety that ran thick within the rest of the album.
Overall, the darker lyrics and grungier instrumentation, emboldened by an emphasis on distortion, result in a DIIV album with more teeth than either of the band’s previous two releases. Still present, however, is Smith’s pillowy vocals. They’re still reserved, soft, and sweet; which adds a nice contrast to many of the sharp guitar riffs but also compliment the sugary layers of guitars the band has refined over the years. It’s the gradual evolution of a sound into something different and striking, but it still retains the core elements that made DIIV… DIIV.
If Is The Is Are was the soundtrack to a death, than Deceiver is a rebirth. Like a phoenix leaping from the ashes, Deceiver redefines DIIV and Smith’s narrative with a heartily earned sense of hindsight. This seems like the album DIIV has always been moving towards creating and features Smith’s best writing thus far. With Smith now walking in his truth, DIIV has crafted a laser-focused and cathartic manifestation of how it feels to face your past and regrets. Of how it feels to accept your mistakes and misdeeds and to move forward. It can be dark, it can be harrowing, but there is always a light. It may not be as close as you want it, but you have to follow it to its end.
Highlights: “Blankenship”, “Like Before You Were Born”, “For the Guilty”, “Horsehead”, “Acheron”