Switched On – Telefon Tel Aviv: Dreams Are Not Enough (Ghostly International)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

In the 2000s, Chicago-based duo Telefon Tel Aviv were highly regarded for their moody electronic music, notable for its wispy vocals and expansive panoramic views. Three high quality albums were released in that time, peaking with Immolate Yourself in 2009. Almost immediately following the album release however tragedy struck, with band member Charles Cooper unexpectedly passing away.

The surviving member Josh Eustis continued in a solo capacity under different aliases, exploring new ground with Puscifer, The Black Queen and striking solo project Second Woman, while briefly appearing as part of Nine Inch Nails’ touring line-up. Then he announced work on new Telefon Tel Aviv material, to the delight of the band’s still devoted fan base – and with Dreams Are Not Enough he releases their fourth album.

Its track titles link to describe a dream Eustis experienced at an early age. 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.

What’s the music like?

The nine tracks unfold as a dream sequence might, staying true to the Telefon Aviv sound but if anything branching out towards more experimental territory. I dream of it often makes a really ear-catching start to the album, arriving by stealth as a reverie might, but gradually imposing itself with rhythms that ricochet and echo, the sound waves bouncing off the walls. The sonic panorama is vast, and captivating when heard on headphones, Eustis using drones that are incredibly comfortable on the ear but then blossom into something more substantial.

He continues to shift the sonic perspective, sometimes up close and very personal and then suddenly cutting away to a vast oceanic view. When he does this for standing at the bottom of the ocean, mouth agape or especially eyes glaring the vocals sound like ancient plainchant, the setting a vast underwater cathedral, the beats now resonating around the windows and arches.

There is perhaps inevitably a sense of sadness on the album, remembering Cooper, but there is an incredibly strong resolve too. As it progresses the vision of the recurring dream continues to be remarkably descriptive. Not breathing hammers home its heavy kick drums, as though the heart is struggling to cope, but when final track still as stone in a watery fane arrives there is a lasting peace, Eustis completing his cathartic journey.

Does it all work?

Yes. Electronic music is rarely as moving or as distinctive as this, and although Dreams Are Not Enough is not always an easy listen, it is never less than captivating. Eustis has a wholly original way with beats, the corrugated surfaces on tracks like arms aloft borne of a vivid imagination. It is great to hear his vocals again too, and although they are disembodied at times they frequently strike a chord.

Is it recommended?

Without hesitation. While Immolate Yourself was dreamy and leaned more towards song-based productions, Dreams Are Not Enough feels like an important part of the recovery stage for Eustis, and it continues the story of Telefon Tel Aviv in a reverential way, never wallowing but seeking new sounds, methods and ways of communicating. Anyone who thinks electronic music is devoid of emotion should head right here.