‘I dream of it often: a younger version of myself, standing at the bottom of the ocean; arms aloft, mouth agape, eyes glaring, not seeing, not breathing, still as stone in a watery fane.’
For Joshua Eustis, the road back to making music as Telefon Tel Aviv has been long and hard. In 2009, mere days after the release of their third album Immolate Yourself, Eustis’s songwriting partner Charles Cooper was found dead, and for a while, TTA’s future was shrouded in mystery. He worked through his grief by writing and playing music with the likes of Nine Inch Nails and Puscifer, later releasing an album and EP as Sons of Magdalene and collaborating with ex-Dillinger Escape Plan member Greg Pusciato under the name of The Black Queen. Now residing in Los Angeles, these ventures fuelled his desire to revive the name, and he gradually got there: first returning to live activity in 2016 and now, 10 years later, releasing his first album as its sole member.
Cooper’s absence is keenly felt, but this is not to say that Dreams Are Not Enough is less impactful than what’s come before; stepping away from the project, then returning to look, listen and create with new ears has given Eustis a fresh perspective. The slow build of opening track ‘I dream of it often:’ brings to mind a curtain gradually being raised on a new era, the constantly shifting tempo driving the track onward as it moves with an unsteady gait, gently fading out lest it collide with the lockstep rhythms of ‘a younger version of myself,’ on which Eustis’s voice surfaces about a minute and a half in, smothered in reverb and dwarfed by the song around him, but nonetheless doing his best to carry it before slipping into a wordless coda.
The sense that things are the same yet different is a theme running throughout the album, its creator using the titles of the album’s nine tracks as brief poetry to recount a distressing recurring dream he’s had since childhood in which he sees himself drowning. The cavernous, murky melodies that attempt to keep ‘standing at the bottom of the ocean;’ from sinking into oblivion can only do so much as the song unravels, introduced by stuttering, pulsing keys and swimming through two verses disrupted by jarring blasts of noise before crashing around the listener’s ears and being pulled inexorably into the abyss.
An appropriately dreamlike atmosphere hangs over the record. Melodies are introduced and fall away just as quickly, with that atmosphere disrupted and shattered with feverish abandon only to return elsewhere. The warped pop sensibility of ‘arms aloft,’ offers the clearest glimpse of Eustis’s renewed vision, the first half of the near eight-minute track sticking to a verse-and-chorus structure before it’s allowed to cut loose for a searingly intense instrumental exploration, wrapping up with an ambient interlude that appears from nowhere, is there for a moment, and then departs. Even the album’s more immediate moments sound somewhat veiled and unfocused, with ‘mouth agape,’ striking the balance between wistfulness and euphoria, creating a meditative state that is gradually pulled apart by a growing sense of fear as noise swells around its main melody and threatens to break it apart, but it never quite does so, instead abruptly cutting into the next track.
The unpredictable nature of many of the album’s tracks means that it’s full of surprises, providing the listener with little thrills they might not even have known they were looking for. A decade removed from the last entry into the Telefon Tel Aviv canon, the sound Eustis has developed has become more fragmented and fractured, with ‘eyes glaring,’ and ‘not breathing,’ refusing to settle and taking detours down musical avenues as they see fit. A downbeat and melancholic–perhaps even mournful–return, Dreams Are Not Enough is an album driven by something it cannot name, searching for something it may never find; filled with restless exploration and shadowy excursions seemingly around every corner, an autumnal elegy for what has been lost. Eustis keeps pushing forward, unsure where he may end up; the destination does not matter, the journey is the point.