Sometimes, the best art is actualized through suffering.
DIIV has been plagued with controversy and scandals since the band’s inception. The group is primarily the project of singer, songwriter and vocalist Zachary Cole Smith, whose struggles with substance abuse have been both a hindrance and a source of inspiration throughout the band’s musical progression.
The band’s “About” section on Spotify details that, after an arrest for drug possession in 2013 and subsequent admission to rehab, Smith returned to the band with over 150 new tracks written in under six months. The resulting sessions produced the band’s most engaging and holistic album to date, 2016’s “Is the Is Are.” The band claims the album was inspired by ‘90s emo-grunge, but it presents itself more like an early U2 effort, complete with delayed The Edge-like guitars and pummeling drums that create a sonic embodiment of the open road.
After Smith’s lengthy second rehab stint in 2017 following the release of “Is the Is Are” and the departure of bassist Devin Ruben Perez over various condemnable online comments he had made in 2014, the band was seemingly in a state of disrepair. However, the dust eventually settled, and the band got back in the studio in March 2019 to record the band’s third LP, “Deceiver,” which was released on Friday, Oct. 4.
In the aforementioned Spotify biography, DIIV describes using a more collaborative songwriting approach for “Deceiver,” but the overarching themes still point back to Smith’s personal trials with substance abuse. Nearly every track is blanketed in darkness, as the lyrics add sinister omens that feed into the swirling guitar harmonies and reach out from the shady corners with a grip that won’t let loose.
The album’s first single, “Skin Game,” showcases these guitar harmonies at their best. Often on “Deceiver,” the guitars swarm like large, pulsating schools of fish to create a purely emotional and rarely riff-based energy. In “Skin Game,” one of these guitar-fish will occasionally leap from the water to flaunt an intricate run of notes. It is the third track on the album, but it is the first track that really introduces catchy riffing and inspires the urge to listen again.
As the attack before the release of the closing track “Acheron,” the opus “Blankenship” stands out as the album’s crowning achievement. The track features a wall of low, slithering guitars that floats above, around and between a cymbal-heavy drumbeat that nervously wrestles its way through the song. The anxiety reaches a head when the chorus kicks in and shaky fuzz guitars bend a little lively chaos into the mix, leading to a complex, dissociative jam. The lyrics paint a vivid depiction of Smith’s own introspection.
“Who sold us the dominion? / Over swine that smell their knife / The vicious creature thin and dying / On a scrap of melting ice,” Smith hums on “Blankenship.” One can surmise that the vicious creature is Smith’s own image of himself, dying on the heroin “ice” that melts before injection.
Smith has proven himself as a visionary through his long and fruitful musical career not only with DIIV, but also through his various contributions to other international indie acts like Beach Fossils and Darwin Deez. When drugs consume one’s thoughts and ambitions, however, it’s disconcerting for those who hold those artists close to their hearts. “Deceiver” is a love letter to those who find themselves trapped within the confines of substance abuse and mental illness in general. Perhaps the earnest nature of “Deceiver” will deter those who aren’t keen on drugs from ever imprisoning themselves in the first place.