Prepare thy liver, this one will drink your grief under the table.
January 11, 2019 | by Jocelyn Hoppa
Released in November of last year, it seems like more than a few music publications got caught up in year-end duties and glossed over the eponymous release from Elena Tonra, under the moniker Ex:Re. Her self-titled debut is a stunning bummer, brimming with harsh truths.
Her chosen name Ex:Re takes on a few meanings: mostly “regarding ex” and also “X-ray” as a way to look inside. But there’s also the “Re:” at the beginning of an email, a correspondence used usually when far away. As such, Tonra sat down to write about a particular breakup, because spinning it all around in her brain wouldn’t make the pain go away. These songs lyrically play out like a conversation she’s having with herself and his ghost.
If you’ve listened to UK’s beloved trio Daughter, you already know Tonra (lead guitarist, vocalist) as being a sad one. But here with her solo project, the nerve is raw and exposed, and the words are particularly biting.
Ex:Re’s lyrical punches go line for line, unrelenting in their bitterness. (In “Liar” she demands, “Tell the truth, you self-absorbed lightweight.” ) She said, “A lot of the songs are long, rambling notes to myself. Like writing letters you don’t actually send. A pile of paper I never quite got the courage to put in an envelope. I was trying to find a way to say things I wanted to say, but couldn’t anymore. Things I was too proud to admit to thinking or feeling.”
The musical backdrop is akin to bands like Warpaint or Azure Ray, indie rock with an emotive groove. She enlisted the help of 4AD’s in-house engineer and producer Fabian Prynn, and along with cellist Josephine Stephenson, carved these songs out from the inside.
Album opener “Where the Time Went” contains some zingers, like the chorus: “You will not save me a stand off / Be another stranger and here / I will leave this empty handed / Feeling selfish, common as shit.” A few lines later she sings, “Lead me into some false pretense / I will ruin you in a second.” Nice.
In “Crushing” she walks back how much she cared: “I’ll loosen up, it’s not like it meant a lot / We were drunk once, it’s not like we were some dream.” Then in “New York” she’s wasted (a common theme) and “hallucinates” a white rabbit climbing down the Empire State Building, alluding to a memory of a gift he made for her — she misses him and she hates it.
As most breakups and unwanted endings go, there’s less clarity and more constant circling around feelings so strong being drunk is a remedy to push it all away, albeit only temporarily, and that’s exactly how the first portion of the record feels. But the straightforward lyrics do take care of some of that ambiguity.
And then we get to album single “Romance,” with its subdued, late-night club beat and fiercely spoken words of some kind of devastation (it sounds like a murder, or a rape, but certainly left open to metaphorical interpretation):
With every stab wound and exhale, I promised myself
That I would never lose my youthful fears of grown up men
I’m scarred with cruel intentions
I thought of another the whole time
Who would have never stared at me like that
See, he saw me as a human
This one thinks I’m a slaughterhouse
More drunken times come with “The Dazzler” and its sparse, fuzzed-out guitar notes and lilting piano riff: “I spiked my own drink, took myself to bed,” she proclaims before pondering the cheap thrills of hotels (towels for every appendage) and the fabrication of hotel sex.
The grief really becomes apparent with “Too Sad,” in which Tonra is simply too sad to fuck, unable to adjust back to life before she loved him. Stuck with the memories in every household thing with a fingerprint, the road she drives down every day, wanting to forget but being unable to because the reminders are lurking around every turn.
“I Can’t Keep You” is another track driven by the beat, and along with “Romance,” brings some movement and blood flow back into the listener’s head, countering the more subdued, downtrodden tracks. Overall, the simplicity of the music allows for her stories to stand out there bare-naked, no complex flourishes needed to convey what’s happening here. The nocturnal backdrop only adds to the feeling many of these revelations happened after hours.
Outro “My Heart” is just Tonra playing single simple notes on her guitar. In the final lines, her boozy breath catches fire, turns dragon: “Like vertigo on a bridge / That river drunk howling like dogs / And I’m running on fumes / Spat flames till it scarred you / Fall away, go find your escape route.”
As storytelling goes, we want the stories delivered by people who can face horrible truths. Elena Tonra is that storyteller, and after all is said and done we thank her for bearing her sad soul, but also look forward to her “more or less sober, doing mostly fine” record. We can’t expect our storytellers to keep that shit up forever.
Watch the video for "Romance" and purchase Ex:Re at the artist's official store.