The first Telefon Tel Aviv album in ten years reveals a refined and rejuvenated sound.
To say that Josh Eustis has overcome obstacles to make Dreams Are Not Enough, the first Telefon Tel Aviv album in ten years, would be putting it mildly. Tragedy had, of course, marked Immolate Yourself, the project's last record. The day before its release, Charlie Cooper, Eustis' partner in the group and his childhood friend, was found dead as a result of an accidental overdose of sleeping pills and alcohol. (Eustis also lost his father around this time.) He's been productive since 2009, working with, among others, Nine Inch Nails, Vatican Shadow and Apparat, and releasing music as Sons Of Magdalene and as one half of Second Woman with Turk Dietrich. But Eustis arrived at the decision to continue Telefon Tel Aviv slowly and painfully. In 2016, his RA Exchange interview with Matt McDermott concluded with Eustis saying, "Why should I stop doing this? I gotta at least try before stopping. I have to at least try and fail instead of just giving up and walking away from it, just because I'm scared to touch it."
Eustis also explained how the pair's creative process usually went down. He'd work on some initial stuff and send it to Cooper, who'd completely pull things apart. They'd then complete the project together. Eustis was control and structure; Cooper was chaos and entropy. How, therefore, would Eustis develop music without the polar-opposite energy of his partner? It would be impossible to guess how he cleared this hurdle, but he's managed to do so. Dreams Are Not Enough is a remarkable return that achieves things the first three Telefon Tel Aviv albums were never quite able to.
"Maudlin" is the word Eustis has himself used to describe music that attempts to stir the soul but, in some respect, tries too hard or goes too far. This is a line that, for me, Telefon Tel Aviv sometimes crossed. The group was known for a pastoral IDM sound that, through vocals and instrumentation, warmed up the genre's cold electronics. Their music was detailed, richly musical and often impressive, but emotive moods sometimes slipped into melodrama. On Immolate Yourself, it was the way tracks climaxed through a formula: emotive expression + emotive expression = (hopefully) an even more emotive expression. By contrast, the best quality of Dreams Are Not Enough is the fusion of its emotions, as positivity and negativity flow into each other like convergent tributaries of a river. On "a younger version of myself," Bernard Sumner-influenced vocals and aching piano lines are underpinned by a bellicose beat that could have come from James Donadio's Prostitutes project. Throughout the album, these sorts of jagged parts and production touches temper Eustis' more earnest vocals and instruments. It's the balance he's long been seeking.
Building upon this, Eustis distributes energy with decisions that are both controlled and confounding. The punchy "not breathing" stands out for its use of vocal processing and stereo effects—notice as your ears adjust to the beat being decentered then impactfully realigned. "arms aloft" takes in Mark Fell-like synths, a Plastikman-style acid line and finishes in lovely ambience; any one of these ideas would have been enough to create a whole track around. Near-silence is used as a compositional tool, as on "standing at the bottom of the ocean" and "eyes glaring," while the opener, "I dream of it often," maps the album's sonic range, from the whisper of strings to the screams of distorted synths.
Eustis sings and processes his voice in a similar vein. He can sound up close, far away, or like he's in many places at once. It's only on the ambient piece "mouth agape," after haunting the track's backwaters, that he appears two inches from your face and sings, "Be quiet now, come with me." It could seem like an artist using this many effects on his voice is hiding or lacking confidence, but the ambiguity is appropriate for the album's tone and textures. Despite the many mitigating musical forces, Dreams Are Not Enough will be too sentimental or grandiose for some, but I'd guess that some people who avoided older Telefon Tel Aviv material for this reason could be converted.
The album and track titles apparently refer to a recurring dream Eustis has, based on a "murky incident during a family vacation to a remote Alabama coastline." It's actually helpful to think about the album through the lens of a dream, both in terms of its sound and its emotional content. Fears are processed and long-held desires are realised.
Tracklist01. I dream of it often:
02. a younger version of myself,
03. standing at the bottom of the ocean;
04. arms aloft,
05. mouth agape,
06. eyes glaring,
07. not seeing,
08. not breathing,
09. still as stone in a watery fane.