DIIV get heavy on post-recovery return
Chris Schwarten
17:05 1st October 2019

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Sometimes the things we say in passing hold more truth than the words we spend hours agonising over. When I caught up with a mate at the pub last week, I mentioned I'd started listening to the new DIIV album and he asked me what I’d made of it so far. My immediate reaction was: “It basically sounds like what would happen if Elliott Smith made a shoegaze album.” I caught myself quickly and told him not to take my word for it because I hadn’t even given Deceiver a full listen yet, but wondered if I would find more on closer inspection.

Formed in Brooklyn in 2011, DIIV has basically been a songwriting project for guitarist and vocalist Zachary Cole Smith. Their albums, Oshin (2012) and Is The Is Are (2016), were praised by critics for their sun-kissed spin on shoegaze and melodic dream pop overtones. But it’s arguably been Zachary’s chaotic life outside the band that has garnered more attention, most notably his 2014 arrest for heroin possession with then-girlfriend Sky Ferreira.

Since then, the narrative of drug addiction has followed DIIV around and continues to do so on Deceiver, though now it’s focused on recovery and redemption. In the aftermath of Zachary’s personal struggles, he “finally accepted what it means to go through treatment and committed [to the program],” emerging from this with a renewed focus and perspective. Getting back together with the band in Los Angeles would result in a series of firsts. This would be the first time DIIV conceived a record as a band with multi-instrumentalist Colin Caulfield bringing in demos, writing alongside Zachary, and the entire band arranging every tune. The end result of all this sees DIIV at their heaviest – both sonically and emotionally.

From the outset, opener ‘Horsehead’ shows there’s a weight behind the band that hasn’t been present in any of their other output. It’s chorus lyrics “Horsehead, it’s never quite enough, I wanna breathe it in, and never breathe back out” paint a vivid picture of the bleakness that comes with being an addict. The overdriven guitars behind it come like a kick to the chest, as if to illustrate the point.

Elliott Smith has always been a noted influence on the singer’s lyrics and melodies, but it’s never been quite as evident in the past as it is here. Which, given the nature of the album is incredibly effective, pairing painful confessional lyrics coupled with a whisper-thin vocal delivery. ‘For The Guilty’ sees them capture those massive My Bloody Valentine overlaid guitars, coupled with the most Elliott Smith inspired melody Zachary has ever put down. First single ‘Skin Game’ is possibly the closest the band sound to the DIIV of old, offering some real colour and sweetness to Deceiver's comparatively black and white palette. While not out of place in the context of the album, it’s certainly a notable exception.

It’s very cliche to say, but there’s a looseness and fragility to the whole album; it sounds like it could fall apart at any second, but never really does. That’s something many bands aim to do, but few pull it off as convincingly as DIIV do here. 

The record does lose momentum by the time it comes to eighth track ‘Lorelei’, which fails to really stand out from anything that’s come before it. Everything starts to feel quite same-y and one-note, which is always the trouble with shoegaze albums in my opinion. Coming just before the end, though, the comparatively tightly wound ‘Blankenship’ has more in common with latter-day Sonic Youth than it does with the dense shoegaze found on the rest of the album. It’s a welcome departure and does help give the album another dimension. And while you couldn’t really call it a dynamic record, it does manage to go to that next level when it needs to. At the same time, these crescendos can take you by surprise at first, as they happen when you feel like you are already riding a wave of noise.

All in all, my offhand remark that Deceiver is essentially a shoegaze Elliott Smith album was somewhat shortsighted, but not a million miles away from the truth. And that ain’t a bad thing in my books.

Deceiver is released on 4 October 2019 via Captured Tracks.

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