Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: DIIV Frog In Boiling Water


If a decade ago you told me that not only would DIIV still be around, but that they’d be considered a modern standard bearer to a younger generation, I’d be equal parts surprised and relieved.

But that’s the situation we find ourselves with DIIV’s new album Frog In Boiling Water, their most mature and best album, a sign that this is a band in it for the long haul, one that has already built a considerable artistic legacy but is disinclined to rest on its laurels — again, not exactly the most predictable outcome if you’ve been following the saga of DIIV in real time.

The Brooklyn group’s 2012 debut Oshin captures its moment just a little too well. DIIV’s hooky, winsome take on shoegaze and dream pop quickly won fans, and the swoontastic single “How Long Have You Known?” became a crush anthem in many circles. But nearly as soon as they arrived, so did the detractors, who accused the band of being lightweights that were getting by on a trendy sound, industry connections, and the boyish good looks of singer-guitarist-occasional model Zachary Cole Smith. I seem to recall them opening up for nearly every high-profile indie show in Brooklyn at the time, and though the phrase “nepo baby” hadn’t entered the cultural lexicon at the time, it was not lost on comment section haters that Smith, known for his baggy chic grunge aesthetic, was the son of a former Vogue editor.

Even if you found all these accusations to be a bit unfair, reminiscent of the similarly instantaneous backlash to the Strokes, Oshin was the sort of charmingly youthful debut that often proves impossible to replicate over time. Some bands are only there for a moment, and that is fine, because moments are all we have, and I was not alone in assuming that would be the case here.

Far more worrying, obviously, were the widespread reports of Smith’s battles with substance abuse, which culminated in him and then girlfriend Sky Ferreira getting arrested in 2013 for possession of a controlled substance. (He reportedly had 42 decks of heroin on him.) Smith wrote unsparingly about his regrets and struggles to stay clean on DIIV’s 2016 sophomore effort Is The Is Are, then received inpatient rehabilitation in 2017.

Is The Is Are and 2019’s Deceiver were met with warm, if notably muted, praise, and they’ve aged well, portraits of a man staring down his demons and trying his best to change, and a band pushing itself towards a more truthful version of itself that stands outside of trends. (Though Is The Is Are did not need to be 17 songs long.)

The drawn-out sessions for Frog In Boiling Water were plagued by creative indecision, pandemic headaches, long-simmering intra-band tensions coming to a head, and the general sense of ennui all non-1% artists feel in a climate that increasingly values content over creativity. DIIV had to fight to become the best version of DIIV, a band that now feels like it’ll be a staple of alternative culture for many years to come. But thankfully, Frog In Boiling Water doesn’t sound like an album birthed by turmoil and gritted teeth determination. In contrast, it’s their most effortlessly beautiful record yet. They’ve taken the advice of another backlash survivor by working hard and making it look easy.

It’s also their most patient. In early interviews, Smith had a tendency to name check German groups like Can and Faust, which I always thought was evidence of a common but silly tendency from young artists to show how knowledgeable about music they are, all while trying to change the subject from discussion of their more overt influences (very obviously My Bloody Valentine, the Cure and Cocteau Twins, at least to my ears). But I suppose I now owe Smith an apology, because DIIV are nailing the motorik thing here, with bassist Colin Caulfield and drummer Ben Newman holding down an unyieldingly steady, driving groove, pushing “Everyone Out” and “Somber The Drums” into a meditative, trancelike state as the guitars rise from a whisper to a soothing squall.

This isn’t an album that traffics in the immediate hooks or spritely energy DIIV first became known for. This is a sound to marinate or wallow in. It doesn’t explode, it swells. DIIV take their time building up “Brown Paper Bag” and “Everyone Out,” with Smith and guitarist Andrew Bailey’s oscillating chords dancing around each other. The hypnotic repetition is key here, each song opening like a ripple and inevitably to a tidal wave of blissful distortion, with mixer and producer Chris Coady elevating it to the same arena-level atmosphere he’s brought to Beach House and Slowdive.

DIIV unexpectedly find themselves as one of the anchor bands of the ongoing TikTok-lead shoegaze revival, and I can confirm first-hand from a live show I saw last fall that they have a lot of high-school age fans. (The kids are alright.) No one can agree on why this is happening, with theories ranging from the argument that shoegaze best reflects modern feelings of isolation and loneliness to the possibility that zoomers are pushing back against millennial tastes by looking for something noisier and more discordant. (It’s also the case that cannabis has never been stronger or easier to find, and shoegaze is the best music to get stoned to.)

Like all genres, shoegaze has a lot of surface-level sonic signifiers (heavy distortion, vocals from someone who just woke up) that are easy for aspiring musicians to latch onto and attempt to recreate. And to be clear, it’s perfectly fine for a young artist to steal from their influences when they start, because everyone has to learn their craft somehow. But DIIV have mastered theirs, and they are now working with a precision and restraint that can only be earned by time and dedication. They’re not in any hurry to impress with “Soul-net.” They confidently add swaths of guitar haze, building the song up like a reverse Jenga until it reaches a level of grace (those last 30 seconds!) that once seemed out of reach for this band, but now feels hard-earned.

Shoegaze isn’t a genre that depends heavily on the lyrics. Human voices are generally just another texture in this world, and most of My Bloody Valentine’s vocals sound like “oooohhhhhhhhh” or “youuuuuuuuuu.” But Smith, now married with a child and thriving in sobriety, has a lot on his mind on Frog In Boiling Water. DIIV play like a band that has accepted what it is and what it’s capable of, but Smith writes lyrics like a man determined to change what he cannot accept. “The future came/ And everything’s known/ There’s nothing left to say/ Show’s over/ Take me home,” he sings on the title track, articulating the widespread disappointment at how the bright new world Silicon Valley promised has curdled into a sea of scammy cryptocurrency, gambling apps, and an ever-more-stratified society.

You can use music like this as a cocoon to hide away from the world, but Smith pushes away from that impulse, soothing and motivating his listeners at the same time, acknowledging the impulse to give up by pleading with us not to, flat out saying on opener “In Amber” that “I can’t look away/ In anger/ I want to disappear.” He definitely strikes me as a guy who uses “neoliberal” in conversation a lot and is eager to rank Adam Curtis films. (HyperNormalisation is my number one, btw.)

But while Smith rages against the “parasites” in control and grieves a dying planet, I still hear Frog In Boiling Water as a hopeful album. “I’m not afraid/ I’ve lived through pain/ But I’m learning to see through/ Everything” he sings on “Soul-net.” He’s not here to offer false uplift, but he knows that despair is the easiest possible answer, and also the worst one. Change is hard, he promises, but possible and worth it. And his band is proof that if you don’t like where your story is going, there’s still time to make a better one.

Frog In Boiling Water is out 5/24 on Fantasy.

Other albums of note out this week:
• Vince Staples’ Dark Times
• RM’s Right Place, Wrong Person
• Gastr del Sol’s We Have Dozens Of Titles
• Lenny Kravitz’s Blue Electric Light
• Twenty One Pilots’ Clancy
• Finom’s Not God
• mui zyu’s nothing or something to die for
• Young Jesus’ The Fool
• Bill MacKay’s Locust Land
• La Luz’s News Of The Universe
• Wallows’ Model
• Erlend Øye & La Comitiva’s La Comitiva
• Girl And Girl’s Call A Doctor
• Lionlimb’s Limbo
• Mat Kearney’s Mat Kearney
• Paul Weller’s 66
• Andrew Bird Trio’s Sunday Morning Put-On
• Cosmo’s Midnight’s Stop Thinking Start Feeling
• Tiny Habits’ All For Something
• Say Anything’s …Is Committed
• System Exclusive’s Click
• Odd Okoddo’s Negore
• Kim Richey’s Every New Beginning
• Luke Black’s Chainsaws In Paradise
• Nathaniel Russell’s Songs Of
• Kyle Andrews’ The Whims Of A Manic Moon
• Motorists’ Touched By The Stuff
• Drunk Uncle’s O, brittle weather!
• Rami Gabriel’s That’s what I been sayin’
• Aquaserge’s La fin de l’economie
• Nathy Peluso’s Grasa
• Yuni Wa’s You’ve Come So Far
• Sango’s North Vol 2.
• Gwenifer Raymond’s Live At MOTH Club
A Compilation From Seattle’s Underground
• TAKA’s Part 1: Fear Of Living
• John Butler’s Running River
• Winter’s …and she’s still listening EP
• Deap Vally’s (ep)ilogue EP
• Low Leaf’s Red Moon EP
• Kinky’s 5 Disparos EP
• Softcult’s Heaven EP
• GROOVY’s Crying In The Club EP
• The Chameleons’ Where Are You? EP
• hey, nothing’s Maine EP
• Aja’s Ajasphère Vol. II EP
• Halima’s EXU EP

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