In 2018, the singer, songwriter and Daughter’s guitarist Elena Tonra released Ex:Re (pronounced “ex ray”), her debut solo album.
Centered around a breakup, Ex:Re produces an X-ray of the fractures left by a relationship gone wrong. The alienating experiences exposed by Tonra unfolds freely, in a chronicle sung by an ex-lover who is actually more worried about herself than about her ex. Therapy comes in the form of cello, pedals, synths, guitar and piano, along with remorseful lyrics that embrace the whole album.
Although being about an ex, the focus is on the absence of this figure rather than the details of what happened in their presence. It’s about what is left, rather than who has been asked to leave (or has willingly left).
Although the record is written for someone, a lot of the time it’s about the space without that person in it. In every scenario, there’s either the person in memory or the noticeable absence of that person in the present moment. I suppose it is a break-up record, however I do not talk about the relationship at all, and he hardly features in the scenes. He is only felt as a ghostly presence.Elena Tonra’s bio
A circle of grief
Elena Tonra’s first musical effort goes through several phases, just like the stages of grieving: anger meets deception, and depression clashes with euphoria in a matter of ten tracks. After the drunken hallucinations and the consequent hangover, the vicious circle repeats itself, then fades without a clear conclusion.
Loneliness is also a central feature of the album. The first single Romance is about this particular aspect of the breakup: the desire for intimacy, the vulnerability, and the lack of emotional connection involved in a one-night stand.
He pretends that he’s understanding
And you know in the grand scheme of everything
He’s probably called a nice man
Or an ordinary kind of man
Or a stereotype with strong hands
Romance shares the brightest moment of the album with the vibrant I Can’t Keep You, and yet darkness and despair dominate the scene. Tonra – as the album’s narrating voice – always sounds angry, exhausted and occasionally not lucid. In this track in particular, the narrator shares disturbing details while under the influence of alcohol:
In the evenings, and the sight of you in my kitchen
You come around here to get high
And I sometimes find you childish […]
I can’t keep you constant secret, sweetness
And I keep forgetting about it, late
Oh, I keep forgetting about you
While Crushing is about communication – it’s easier to hide behind a screen than to engage in a face-to-face conversation – New York is a hallucinatory meditation on the city that never sleeps and the toxic thoughts we cannot dismiss.
Then comes the heartache – and the headache. The following tracks, namely The Dazzler and Too Sad, hint at trip-hop, with jazzy drums and distorted guitars. They explore similar themes: that of numbing through alcohol and that of the pain of absence. Then comes the heartache – and the headache. The following tracks, namely The Dazzler and Too Sad, hint at trip-hop, with jazzy drums and distorted guitars. They explore similar themes: that of numbing through alcohol and that of the pain of absence.
Especially Too sad tells of the difficulty in readjusting back into life after someone has left:
I see your fingerprints on household things
I’m too sad to touch
Meanwhile, 5 AM sounds like a meditation on an abusive relationship as witnessed from afar.
Ex:Re closes up with My Heart, an indie-folk confession that leaves the riddle of the album unsolved. In collaboration with composer Josephine Stephenson, the entire album was rearranged and performed with the un-conducted string ensemble, 12 Ensemble, in 2019.
On February 19, 2021, Ex:Re with 12 Ensemble was released on digital platforms: a recorded live concert at London’s Kings Place in November 2019.
A new classic in the break-up canon
Elena Tonra’s solo effort taps into universal experiences, shaping the X-ray of a failed relationship: a sense of pain and aching is continual. Most of the songs have a tortured sound, but an energetic rush never comes. There is only her voice, often accompanied by strings, that sings or speaks the lyrics with quiet malice.
Throughout the record, the protagonist is alienated by her pain but finds relief in the isolation. Her ex-lover almost never appears. When he does, he is only an allusion. While surrendering to drunken delusions, with Ex:Re Elena Tonra achieved moments of pure poetry through brutal honesty. Listening to the album is like scavenging through the ruins of a love gone wrong, but there’s nothing left to save. There are no sweet memories to cherish, only the stark reality of abandonment. The narrator tries to come to terms with the loss, in a process that could appear rational but that hides extreme pain.