Daughter’s debut album, If You Leave, comes on the heels of their breakthrough single “Youth”, a stirring, lyrically potent song which gained the band a great deal of attention back in 2011 with the release of The Wild Youth EP. That song found a harmonious kind of middle ground between the new wave of British singer-songwriters that have emerged in recent years and emotionally charged bass-driven music from the likes of The XX and James Blake. It caught attention with it’s simple refrain matched to quietly wise, knowing lyrics – “If you’re still breathing, you’re the lucky ones / ‘Cause most of us are heaving through corrupted lungs”. It was a life-affirming mantra to make the most of youth and health while you’ve still got it, to be thankful for little things and take nothing for granted. The disappointment of If You Leave, then, is that it’s primary mode of expression seems to be one of wallowing self-pity. On none of the other 9 songs on this album does Elena Tonra focus her seemingly limitless repository of heartbreak and loss into anything resembling a statement, or a resolution. Instead, she examines and re-examines the minutiae of a crumbling relationship with desperate precision, and over the albums 46 minute runtime the overall effect is a series of claustrophobic, homogenous songs which feel strangely distant and hard to relate to.
Much of this distance comes from the thick layer of reverb that coats nearly every sound on the album, from its icy guitar lines to its rolling drum hits and, above all, Tonra’s croon of a voice. Her most affecting vocal moments on the album are unquestionably those where all the echo and reverb drops out, leaving just her voice accompanied by sparse guitars, as on the chilly “Smother”, where she laments breathlessly “Oh love, I’m sorry if I smothered you” over a simple, beautiful chord progression. But these moments are few and far between on If You Leave, particularly in the albums second half, where the mournful, watery homogeneity becomes wearyingly tedious, and rather than sit through seven minute closer “Shallows”, you just want to shake Tonra and tell her to cheer up a bit. The problem with these songs on the back half is they all feel incredibly static – they have no momentum and very little progression, instead choosing to wallow in self-pity and song-writing ennui.
Daughter are a band with a lot of potential, but you can’t help but feel they won’t reach it if they don’t let a bit of light in to their sound, and push it in some different directions. It could be that The XX have already perfected the sound they’re aiming for, or it could be that they’ve simply appropriated it without bringing anything new to the table. Either way, listening to If You Leave makes you wish Daughter would choose which direction they want to take their music in and pursue it whole-heartedly, rather than dipping their toes in the murky, watery middle ground between bass-driven and folk music they already perfected with “Youth”.