Album Review: Ada Lea – one hand on the steering wheel the other sewing a garden

[Saddle Creek; 2021]

In the final moments of the last track on her previous album, Alexendra Levy sang, “it’s not easy.” While she was addressing the fatigue brought on by an on again/off again relationship, the way she uttered the line was as if she was trying to tie up a wealth of emotional experience into one moment. It’s a simple lesson she carries forward onto her second album as Ada Lea, the stark and modestly verbose one hand on the steering wheel the other sewing a garden.

Where Levy’s previous album what we say in private was angular and tricky at times, one hand on the steering wheel smooths out a lot of the bumpier textures and proclivities – but without sacrificing the unvarnished production personality that made her debut so noticeable upon its arrival. Levy still has an enchanting way of sucking all the air out of an arrangement, leaving her lulling and conversational voice and carefully plucked guitar chords to drift you along to the song’s next moment. On the rousing “my love 4 u is real” she strips away the surrounding swampy synths and drum splashes to allow a siren-like build to erupt in the chorus. “Oranges” goes similarly quiet in its chorus, the song unfurling in ways that keeps feeling surprising, despite how many repeated listens you engorge in.

And one hand on the steering wheel definitely warrants many a listen. Levy’s lyrics are diaristic, considered, and poetic in equal measure. “backyard” conjures all its details while setting an autumnal scene (you can easily picture the suburban Halloween backdrop of browning leaves and lanterns left on doorsteps), but she sings with a certain gusto that makes it seem like time is running out to say it all. The aforementioned “oranges” sews together picturesque particulars: “The humming of the ash trees / stains of fallen leaves on the concrete… the revving of the motor bikes in the night / your bed positioned so the sun rises to your left.” It’s no surprise that special editions of the album come with a songbook of lyrics and map locations for the songs. Like photographs strewn across the floor, Levy invites you to follow the threads and notice the details.

While Levy might keep herself at arm’s length in terms of admitting that these songs are entirely autobiographical, it makes the emotional clout of the album’s most poignant moments no less affecting. The dazzling opening track “damn” uses multiple unassuming guitar chords to build momentum until the final rising and climaxing chorus of the song, where everything sounds like it’s both constricting and expanding to breaking point. “Every year is just a little bit darker / then the darker gets darker / then it’s dark as hell,” she notices with a quiet unease. The album’s final two tracks offer the clearest words and stories, “violence” with its tale of escaping an abusive relationship, and “hurt” where Levy confesses “Somebody hurt me badly / now i’m stuck in a rut / now I don’t know my body.” A low synth murmur burbles underneath the acoustic strums like that foreboding darkness from the first track still lingering.

one hand on the steering wheel might not have any clear missteps (though the jagged pedal twang filling the empty space on “violence” wears a little thin all too quickly), but it may take some time to warm to. Some offerings are more instantly likeable than others: most notably “saltspring” with its sprightly acoustic guitar notes chirping like birdsong in the morning and its wistful observations (“Years gone by / Very proustian, this passage of time”). There’s “backyard” with its pizzicato and violin streaks that make it seem like Kishi Bashi was left to paint some bright colours in the studio. “partner”, with its rumbling, heavy, and swirling piano chords, details a breakup in a way that feels like a flashback sequence in a movie.

Where one hand on the steering wheel always excels though is with its words. There’s always a line at hand that makes for a poignant, reflective quote: “It’s not what we didn’t do / as much as we did”; “We’re either growing apart or growing together.” Levy brings back themes and ideas explored on what we say in private and builds them into new worlds (dancing, dying, seasons, break-ups, moving on); the songs here feel like miniature sequels to the life (or lives) detailed on the previous album, if not continuations of events. Even on this album we get a morning after story in “partner”, which tells of reckoning with seeing an ex at the New Year’s Eve party described on opening track “damn”. Listening to Levy, we feel entirely embroiled in the drama and reconciliatory processes in her head. That final line from what we say in private still rings true: it’s not easy. But if it was, then we likely wouldn’t have this enchanting second album from Ada Lea.