Elena Tonra talks about living in negation of everything else. “Underneath the skin there’s a human / Buried deep within there’s a human / And despite everything I’m still human”, she sings on “Human”, listing the callousness of others and the trials of her life as proof that, well, things go on. She’s reacting to what’s happened throughout If You Leave, calling herself a fool and giving out backhanded apologies (“I’m sorry if I smothered you”, she admits like sorry means something else), but for “Human” she seems to focus on what’s internal to her, and what no one else can quite get at. Tonra doesn’t need to apologise to herself, and that’s a defiant moment for a record wracked with this pain of hopelessness. For me, it makes it the best song on If You Leave, and the moment where the album finally begins. It’s a glimpse of sunlight on the morning after a languished night, Tonra crackling with newfound energy in the face of what’s fading behind her. There are a lot of topic sentences about If You Leave that won’t tell that story – the defiant moment, clearer and less guarded revelation – but it’s captivating to watch Tonra shake off the burden she’s locked herself up with.
If You Leave is out of its shell for just these few moments, Tonra awakening and emanating something like optimism. The full-bodied, almost playful guitar strumming on “Human” recalls Sigur Rós’ elegiac “Gobbledigook”, another song that aimed to surprise an audience who expected the still, quiet beauty of an unyielding band. But we’re taught see the emotions of If You Leave as inescapable, and “Human” seems to exist so that Tonra can dispel herself. It ends hardened, the guitar vanishing under flustering piano notes that hold the album down, and the walls closing in on the space around her. “But”, Tonra reminds herself, suffocating, “I think I’m dying here”. It’s a crushing return to her sense of reality, but such is the inevitability of this album – Tonra wears her dependence, and her sacrifices, as a uniform.
“Human” can’t escape that, and while it’s striking to see Tonra briefly consider something other than dying love (turning instead to herself), this is a homogenously album, one that crafts the tragedy. I barely notice “Winter” morphing into “Smother”, despite the formers’ climactic crutch and the latter’s damning hush, and as a band, Daughter synthesize their crossover album expertly, melding electronic music with such a subdued approach it puts out the lights, and turns the indie folk leanings to thoughts of darkness. When If You Leave pulses, like it does on “Still”, it does so as a faraway force, the beats dropping over a skyline; Tonra’s band offer a metropolis for her searching self to struggle through. Her performance on the album, meanwhile, is startling but respectful. Her guitar playing acts as a starting point, letting the album’s dramas fall to the ground around her – “Youth” with its shimmering drums and feedback, covers her quiet, repeating notes underneath. Tonra is the quiet epicentre of If You Leave, whispering lines like “most of us are bitter over someone” knowing the venom will be extracted no matter how loud she is.
For an earnestly constructed record such as it is – one so composed I’ve debated whether it should be, and whether that’s why its best moment is the one that shakes it awake – If You Leave is an album about something far messier. It documents the world around one person slowly, eventually crumbling, the life outside her being witnessed with a devastating slow-motion set up. I might love “Human” because it steps out of that realm for just a moment, but I love it more for falling back into the sad, inevitable rhythms Tonra clings to. On “Smother”, she sings “All my children can become me” as if this story will be lived again. “What a mess I leave to follow”, she adds, because heartbreak comes in waves.