Perth-based singer/songwriter Stella Donnelly’s first album, the hardened, soul-swelling Beware of the Dogs, solidified her spot among her Oceania contemporaries—Aldous Harding, Julia Jacklin, Alex Lahey and others—in 2019. The songs level at crumbling relationships, holding abusers accountable and losing bodily agency. And as Donnelly drops vivid scenes of trauma into her accounts of everyday life, she broaches heavy topics with an empowering wit that offers punchlines as achingly clever as they are brutally real. On her newest project, Flood, Donnelly scales back the humor in favor of a language that confronts the record’s themes head-on. Though Beware of the Dogs was a #MeToo record unveiled at the movement’s peak, it remains urgent. And while Flood doesn’t address the same themes as directly as its predecessor, it still dares to mine emotional explosions for introspective truths and accountability. Flood packs the punch of a hardened fist, of a bursting desire to put autonomy atop the pedestal.
Aussie songwriters have practically trademarked colloquial ingenuity, as Courtney Barnett proved on last year’s Things Take Time, Take Time and Jacklin will on her own PRE PLEASURE. But where Jacklin and Barnett have tended to center coming-of-age stories, Donnelly’s narratives were more catered to the contemporary, tracking her own woes like an in-progress memoir. Now, Donnelly is, lyrically, walking backwards, zeroing in on how her upbringing shaped her current relationships. While trudging through the muck of generational trauma, she holds close the blueprint that makes her music so singular: the sense of empowerment that comes with interrogating and acknowledging your own past. Though Donnelly often sings in a similar cadence as her peer Barnett, she doesn’t quite match Barnett’s famous drawl—as a result, Donnelly has emerged as an artist with a voice of her own, an always-charming delivery of sometimes very uncomfortable truths.
Preceded by three wonderful singles (“Flood,” “How Was Your Day?” and “Lungs”), Flood is not just a sonic touch-up, but an affecting exploration. On Beware of the Dogs, Donnelly worked through a lot of guitar-centric arrangements. It was bedroom pop with an alt-rock edge; glazed six-strings melded with an occasional run of synths. Donnelly originally composed Flood on the piano, not the guitar. The result is clear and poignant: The record is very much populated with an honed, expansive compositional talent and sharp, intoxicating stanzas (“You’ve got a lot of medals for someone who is losing / You’ve got a lot of trophies, they call it moral bruising / You’re wearing all your ribbons and yelling at the TV / You’re scaring all your housemates with your monologuing” from “Medals” is a personal favorite).
We are welcomed into the world of Flood through a run of Marcel Tussie’s metronomic percussion, which christens the intro of “Lungs.” Through wayfaring vocal harmonies, stuttering pianos and pulsating, two-step drum beats, Donnelly takes us through a story of a family being evicted from their home, told from the POV of a child. “Stretching out the leather on your wallet / That my lungs are filling up / Long live the asbestos on the rental / Yeah it looks alright to me,” she sings in the second verse.
Flood’s sonic landscape is a flourishing one. The opening alt-rock guitar progression of “Medals” eventually bleeds into a beautiful breakdown where Jack Arnett’s saxophone duets with Jack Gaby’s piano. The detours are the result of Donnelly and company’s self-proclaimed “plink plonking,” where they experiment with different tonal shifts until something “alien” floats to the surface. The results, like how Julia Wallace’s flugelhorn masquerades as humming background vocals on “Morning Silence,” are euphoric. On the enrapturing “Move Me,” Donnelly tells the story of a breakup (with a partner who’s supposedly an Uma Thurman lookalike) that holds repercussions beyond the romance. “You’re the bit that holds us all together / Never had much time for sympathy / I’ll throw a little courage on my nightdress / I want to be yours ‘til there’s no me,” she sings in the final verse, after holding herself accountable for not noticing the fissures sooner.
“How Was Your Day?” screams Blondie, but still carries the Donnelly pedigree of colorful choruses mixed with sharp bridges and addictive verses. Thom Stewart provides a perfect set of monotone backing vocals that complement Donnelly’s prismatic soprano. There’s a great moment of syntax near the end, when she sings, “Time to open up, how was your day? / Feels like breaking up, calling my name.” Donnelly’s linguistic command seems just as effortless as it does meticulous. “Restricted Account” is where we are properly introduced to Wallace’s flugelhorn, which shimmers astoundingly over a sparse, but emotional piano performance from Gaby. Donnelly delivers a similar undertaking of mountainous emotions on “Oh My My My,” as she tracks the death of a loved one, presumably a maternal figure, that left her and her dad lost. “Found your camera, blurry existence / Took a village, watched my dad cry,” she sings as she surveys how someone’s passing can affect the people beyond her own mourning. Donnelly’s songwriting sometimes charts the typical, self-reflective waters one can expect from someone navigating certain unshakable griefs, but, on Flood, she isn’t afraid to step outside of herself and assess the interpersonal damage.
Not often does a title track emerge as a record’s best, but “Flood” has lingered in my mind since June. From the communal backing vocal performance by Gaby, Wallace, George Foster and Jennifer Aslett to Gaby’s glittering synthesizers, it’s a work of remarkable catchiness and top-40 nightclub-pop dreamscapes. “I’m never here when you want my / Feverish spite and luck,” Donnelly sings. In her most empathetic and vulnerable state, Donnelly flips the script here and asks the listener to step into the shoes of someone dating her. The POV switch is a daring choice, one that encapsulates the ethos of the record. The singles, all upbeat articulations of bummer times, are not so much anomalies as they are energetic appetizers. Donnelly takes shape on Flood in numerous ways, whether it’s atop sparse piano notes so her vocals can shine or meandering through a crowded party of melancholia with a two-step-esque dance beat thumping behind.
Flood doesn’t quite reach for the same comedic relief that its predecessor gleaned. But that’s a good thing—both records are necessary in Donnelly’s canon. She could’ve easily made a second record about the assholes of the world who move beside her (the well is, unfortunately, always brimming with material), but maybe the most remarkable thing about her sophomore effort is that her independence is a wrecking ball. On closer “Cold,” Donnelly proudly asserts: “You are not, big enough, for my love.” After making a record about carrying the weight of all the world’s meanness on her back, she’s now giving space to her own ramshackle heart. Donnelly harnesses a single, palpable truth by Flood’s end: She is her own panacea.
Matt Mitchell is a writer living in Columbus, Ohio. His writing can be found now, or soon, in Pitchfork, Bandcamp, Paste, LitHub and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @matt_mitchell48.