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Ada Lea - what we say in private Music Album Reviews

The Montreal singer-songwriter’s debut album uses heartbreak as the springboard for an innovative brand of indie rock that’s both fiery and introspective.

Sometimes loss calls for a personal rediscovery. When Alexandra Levy endured a recent breakup she used various creative outlets—painting, journaling, making music—in order to recall who she was before and redefine herself in the aftermath. As a result, the Montreal singer-songwriter came up with 10 songs that embody the tumultuous cycle of pain, anxiety, patience, and acceptance that accompanies major heartache. Her debut album as Ada Lea, what we say in private, is a peculiar vortex of intense emotion and experimental pop music.

Ada Lea’s music is a fusion of solemn acoustic-guitar melodies, belligerent distortion, warped saxophone cries, spectral synthesizers, field recordings of birds and snowmobiles and airplanes, and volatile tempo fluctuations. At times her tendencies lead her toward the tempered earnestness of Wilco, while at others she taps into a raw fury evocative of PJ Harvey or Angel Olsen. Ada Lea creates a space for a vision of indie rock that’s both bright and moody, fiery and introspective.

Ada Lea begins her chaotic ride with the unpredictable “mercury.” A thumping buzz fades in and out as a resolute electric guitar takes the reins. Then the tempo shifts, the buzz falls away, and we’re left with a solemn bass line that wobbles against Lea’s wispy vocals. Both the arrangement and her voice seesaw between aggression and sorrow. She begins to break down her relationship’s demise: “There is always one person who does love/Just a little more than the other.”

Sometimes it feels like Ada Lea might be an untrustworthy narrator. Her lyrics are vivid and visceral yet sometimes unsure of themselves. In “the party,” she questions whether she recalls the moon’s color correctly and if she read the night’s tone accurately. “You have always followed the sun/And I the moon, or have I misremembered?” she asks meekly on the Big Thief-like “yanking the pearls off around my neck...” She displays unusual candor for someone whose self-understanding has been thrown off its axis: “I can’t help wondering if I tricked you into loving me.”

Levy journaled furiously for 180 days after her relationship ended, and she uses those journal entries for inspiration throughout the album. “I want the days to hurry by without losing my mind,” she sings on “180 days.” An electric guitar pitter-patters restlessly as she awaits a time when things won’t hurt so much. Across its four minutes, a harp occasionally radiates from behind her, while a static-laced drum machine sounds like a hard drive rupturing. Like her emotions, the song comes in ripples of light and dark. Just as she laments on the edgy closer “easy,” healing isn’t automatic—it’s messy and inconsistent.

Ada Lea’s unsettling moments are just as affecting as her quiet, intimate ones. “the party” is one of the album’s most muted songs; the sound of traffic imbues a warm fuzz. Then whirling, high-pitched synths descend upon the chorus, like a halo. Throughout what we say in private, Lea’s heartbreak, recovery, and struggle for self-awareness feel like a walk on a bumpy gravel path branching into numerous shadowy detours.

Take “for real now (not pretend),” where Lea trades singing for spoken word. One moment she is telling herself it’s going to be a good day, and then she’s thirsting just to feel anything. These tonal and emotional shifts, as Ada Lea vacillates between timidity and aggression, are what make what we say in private so exciting. But it’s Levy’s willingness to wrestle with her own vulnerability that leads the album to its highest peaks.

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