Without over-working the metaphor – which its title track handles far better – London-born singer-songwriter Lail Arad’s second album displays more layers than 2010 début Someone New.
Flitting between styles – folk, fingerstyle blues and brash, brassy pop all figuring – its best songs had room to breathe in simple arrangements. But all too often it was more affected than truly affecting, the love of a good pun or daft accent getting in the way of droll, characterful writing and performance.
Six years on, The Onion is a far more coherent whole, both stylistically – a sparse acoustic three-piece setup with scattered solo pieces – and in theme, revolving around love, loss and the creeping suspicion that we’re not getting any younger.
The first three songs in particular seem to narrate three stages in a relationship. Milo, peppered with vocab like a French primer (“I miss you Milo, riding on your vélo, writing with your stylo, stealing all my gâteau…”), weds its sultry purr to pulsing bass and drums, a tale of love across a language barrier. “I can’t ride a bicycle and you can’t say my name,” adds a sprightlier double-time section, “but bike back to me baby and we can share the blame”.
Mary’s Song takes things a little further, all jaunty bassline and finger clicks: “I’ll let you call me Mary if I can take you home,” before regret starts to sink in on Pickled Love. Here, she’s close-miked and intimate over a steady arrangement which slowly builds, conjuring up the image of a passion preserved in a jar (“the trust starts to trickle, and the love begins to pickle”) and the inevitable end (“It was time, so I said goodbye”).
When We Grow Up, possibly the best moment here, reflects on being an age you might once have thought to be grown up but feeling anything but; steering clear of “ladders and careers”. There’s a casual, doomed insouciance to lines like “We try to be realistic, but we’re so damn artistic,” tossed appealingly over one shoulder, and the live feel lends an undeniable sense of fun.
My Love and Whirlybird also touch on ideas of ageing and fitting everything in. Delivered in a wry, acerbic manner that suggests the early ‘70s albums of Dory Previn, the first talks about being “jealous of…” and “angry at our parents’ generation” but acknowledges: “still we seek their affirmation” while Whirlybird, upbeat and countrified, flits around restlessly (“It’s busy in this city, no time to see your friends, you’re trying to strike a balance, you’re working at weekends”).
Not everything lands as successfully: the rather slight Count With Me and Yayo’s Lullaby for instance, but there’s a lot to admire in the former’s Jonathan Richman-esque naiveté and the sleepy Sunday Morning feel of the latter.
The angry, thundery blues of Lay Down is a highlight, Arad asking “Why was I so ready to lay myself bare for you?” If love was pickled by track three, it’s positively flambéed here: “Your protective mother told me not to bother, your prospective lover told me not to go there.”
And 1934 (A Song For Leonard Cohen) turns a theme on its head, as Arad regrets not being born earlier (“It’s just a shame that you were born in 1934”), and being unable to be lover or muse to Cohen. With a breezy, mocking chorus of “Solo es música [it’s just music],” she’s poking fun at her own obsession – whose genuine affection is palpable – indulging in a few playful references (“How it feels to be the lady of a ladies man”).
It’s a lot of fun, and typical of Arad’s warm, witty writing on an album well worth spending time with. By stripping away some of the layers of its predecessor, The Onion has revealed new depths.