There’s no mistaking Ada Lea’s debut for anything but break-up album, but the Montreal singer (real name: Alexandra Levy) manages to navigate around the most obvious tropes of the genre, powering through the heartache without wallowing in it or being unduly cruel. Though maybe “powering” isn’t the right word: Much of What We Say in Private is low-key and even hushed as Levy focuses more on reinvention than recrimination, as if she is determined to emerge from her pain a stronger, more self-assured person, and not a bitter one.
As the story goes, Levy spent six months after a recent break-up staying awake for days at a time, painting, writing songs and journaling in an effort to parse the relationship and how it fell apart. Those journal entries formed the basis for the 10 folk-pop songs on What We Say in Private, which ranges from wry and wistful to quietly anguished. A muted single-note guitar part threads through “180 Days,” blooming brightly every few bars into a mix of synths and strummed electric guitar, and then a glitchy electronic rhythm, as Levy imagines how much time it will take to feel better and what she has planned when she gets there. “The Party” conveys a feeling of lonely isolation through a combination of Levy’s whispery vocals and mournful piano chords, augmented at the end with what sounds like the noise of traffic on wet pavement.
Levy and producer Tim Gowdy include idiosyncratic sonic touches on other songs, too. Sometimes they’re instrumental: Electric guitar runs through a flanger for a jet-engine effect on “What Makes Me Sad,” which also features a blaring horn part; and the distinctive guitar lick on “Wild Heart” dissolves into a psychedelic cloud during a gauzy instrumental break on “Wild Heart.” Occasionally the sound effects are weirder. “Just One, Please,” opens with a voice memo of Levy asking questions at a pet store, with squeaking, twittering animal noises in the background. Simple acoustic guitar and murmured vocals on “Yanking the Pearls from Around My Neck” are intercut with the distant sound of ambient outdoor noise: a kid yelling, birds chirping.
Even with the off-kilter stuff, What We Say in Private has a consistent tone, but that’s not always a good thing. Songs like “180 Days” and “The Party” are stand-outs, but some of the other tracks can blend together unobtrusively enough that they go scrolling by without commanding your full attention, not memorable enough to make a lasting impact. That could be a testament to their subtlety, though it’s more likely a sign of an artist with vast potential who is still growing into her talent.