It’s been a bit quiet on the Daughter front. Their, hopefully not prophetic, Not To Disappear, was released nearly three years ago, and despite a low key release last year – the instrumental and soundtrack-based Life is Strange: Before the Storm – it’s been very quiet. Then suddenly, just a week before it was due to be released, Daughter’s singer and songwriter Elena Tonra told the world that she had an album to drop. Apparently, this short notice was purposeful, the record only being initially released digitally, before getting a physical outing early next year. There’s nothing like a pleasant surprise, and as Ex:Re (pronounced “X-ray”, a play on “regarding ex”), she plumbs the depths of her soul in ‘documenting’ her recent turmoil following the break-up of a relationship.
Why the record? In the words of Tonra, “It was the end of a relationship, and there was no way to undo it. The moment I realised it wasn’t going to be resolved the way I thought it was, was also the moment I realised I should write about it. I started this project on my own. I would go into the studio and it was almost like vomiting. Every day just like bleeuurrgghh. Trying to make sense of things.”
It’s been said since time immemorial that unhappiness, tragedy, or some kind of personal volatility informs the desire to write about it, to release those creative juices, and see what happens. Happiness and stability rarely does it. When artists do attempt to be creative under those conditions, the results are often unsatisfactory, mushy, and, worst of all, boring. So, we can be thankful for superlative songwriters such as Tonra who, while believing that a lot of the songs here are rambling notes to herself, can also be considered, heartfelt, and brave, full of insight and hard-fought poetic wisdom.
Ex-Re is, on the surface, a solo album, with Tonra’s imprint everywhere. She played many of the instruments, and co-produced it, working with the 4AD in-house ‘wizard’, Fabian Prynn, who also plays drums here, along with cellist and vocal arranger Jospehine Stephenson. Allowing feel and instinct to dictate where the sounds would go, but with the idea of each song resembling a scene from a film, repetition is at the core of most of the tracks here, with looping melodies the base from which a soundscape emerges.
The mood is largely downbeat, and noirish throughout, as befits the subject matter. There is no ‘Always Look at the Bright Side of Life’ here, with introspection, and anything but a superficial slogan, taking hold. As on the finger picked ‘Where the Time Went’, where repetitive bass drum, and cello fills are allied to Tonra’s softly spoken voice: “You could open with your failings / make them understand“, she sings with great intimacy, and confidence. While the rolling rhythms, deep bass, and crisp drums of ‘Crushing’ is reminiscent of one of Joan As Police Woman’s best songs, ‘The Ride’. Tonra’s versatile and expressive voice cutting through, as she remarks on the modern effects of social media and instant messaging: “I guess attention spans are lessening / It’s a lesson in humans using machines to show their feelings”.
Although Irish-British, and part-Italian extraction, Tonra sounds a little like the sing-speak style of Suzanne Vega, and on ‘New York’ the ragged, disorientating and mournful violin tones beautifully depict an intoxicated protagonist, who is “Hallucinating”, and “seeing things I’m missing”. While the moodily propulsive electronica that underpins her thoughts on ‘Romance’, depicting hurt and confusion, and mixing up self-character analysis with real events that have, for her, eaten into any trust she may have had.
On ‘The Dazzler’, a slow fuzzed-up guitar line is mixed with high-in-the-mix drums, and dark bass notes, Tonra seemingly drunk again, trying to make sense of things alone in a hotel room, a semi-stream of consciousness informing her thoughts. The melancholic, late-night vibes continue throughout, as on the bare and moody Portishead-like ‘Liar’. The uncompromising and often despairing lyrics always the focus, where, as if trying to free her mind, she sings: “Memories follow me“. However, there is some sort of resolution by the time we get to the final track, the bare and mesmerising ‘My Heart’, just her and her subtly expressive electric guitar, as she recognises the finality of it all, whilst still lovingly recognising that it will never be quite over: “In your hands, in your hands / My heart”.
Tonra has also said making records is “like a compulsive illness”, but which she uses as a tool to make sense of things in her real world. Like her mysterious ex, the person who was such a huge part of her life, that Tonra named the project, and the album Ex:Re, after, this is a record of great mystery, and yet universal application – a break up record, and the making sense of it, in its personal, earth shattering aftermath. Perhaps too proud or, if one can excuse the word, illiterate, to express her feelings of sadness, confusion and hurt to close friends and family, Tonra has managed to channel all this turbulence effectively into beautifully noirish and soulful music. And that can only be a positive.