Stella Donnelly Softens Her Bite on the Introspective 'Flood'

BY Emilie HanskampPublished Aug 24, 2022

Stella Donnelly has never been afraid to call you out. On the Australian singer-songwriter's debut album Beware of the Dogs, she took so many people to task that American rock critic Robert Christgau dubbed it a "musical encyclopedia of assholes". This wasn't an admonishment — it was a high five. In 2019, the climate was as ripe and ready as ever for Donnelly's fierce takedowns of politicians, out-of-touch family members and creepy bosses. But on her sophomore album Flood, her bite is less severe as she settles into a far more introspective record.

Introspection is hard work. Donnelly makes this clear throughout Flood, navigating different relationships and personas from track to track. Whether she's taking on the perspective of a child protecting their working class parents from the "suits" ("Lungs"), or a person coming to terms with their abusive relationship ("Underwater"), the listener bears witness to the way each dynamic can overwhelm a person entirely. In the midst of this emotional flooding, Donnelly is kind enough to keep listeners afloat with threads of optimism like "This Week", where she celebrates the small wins that come in the midst of depression. While you may not relate to every track on Flood, you'll see yourself reflected before the album has run its course.

Donnelly notably traded her electric guitar for the piano in the songwriting process on Flood, and this switch-up will be the biggest left-turn for fans. Instead of more classic indie-sounding songs energized by riffs and reverb, the piano-led tracks make this less an album you sing along to with your friends, and more one you cry to in your bedroom — with or without your friends. But this shift in instrumentation also allows for more vulnerability. "Underwater" opens with the often-cited stat that "it takes a person seven tries to leave" an abusive relationship. As Donnelly takes us through the disorientation of being at the whim of another person's anger, her rudimentary piano style is the logical accompaniment. The same goes for "Oh My My My", where the singer processes a life-shifting loss.

On other points of the album though, this minimalism leaves you wanting more. On "Restricted Account", the instrumentation is airy and beautiful but by the four-minute mark, it feels more like an extended interlude. Donnelly has mastered the indie bop but still has some finessing to do when it comes to the stripped-down ballad. 

There are moments where Donnelly takes bigger risks. The album is book-ended by its most danceable tracks, which were co-produced by Australian art rocker Jake Webb (of Methyl Ethel). Webb's influence is most apparent on "Lungs", the album's first single. Donnelly's buoyant vocals crawl up and down octaves overtop a mean bassline before the song breaks off into a reverb-heavy outro that'll satisfy anyone with a penchant for early aughts garage rock — these aren't sounds we're used to hearing from the Aussie singer-songwriter.

On "Cold", Donnelly experiments with a Dolores O'Riordan-esque lilt, building up to the final anthemic chant of "You're not big enough for my love". The track is sure to be a live audience favourite. And while Donnelly has always worn her Courtney Barnett influence on her sleeve, that has never been more apparent than on the album's second track, "How Was Your Day". Barnett collaborator Anna Laverty co-produced the track, helping make Donnelly's laconic delivery and pointed storytelling an easy standout on the album.

The reason you turn to Stella Donnelly is not for the production but for the way she meets the cultural moment; that's where she shines on Flood. "Morning Silence" could be the answer to her 2017 #MeToo anthem "Boys Will Be Boys" — In the latter, she addressed her friend's rapist directly, telling him she'll "never let [him] rest". In the former, she speaks to other women, lamenting the fact that every generation deals with the "same old fight" when it comes to their safety and bodily autonomy. It's a refrain that feels painfully literal at a time when women's reproductive rights are being stripped from them across the water.

Those who loved Donnelly's signature snark on Beware of the Dogs might be left a bit hungry with her sophomore project. In 2019, she got on stage at Glastonbury and declared she had written a song about politics "just to piss some people off", and it's understandable that fans might miss that punk sensibility. But don't confuse Donnelly's pivot for passivity. She's no longer speaking directly to the creepy boss or out-of-touch uncle, but perhaps she no longer wishes to educate or threaten. The songwriter instead chooses to engage more meaningfully with characters that exist beyond her own privilege and experience. In this way, Flood is much less didactic than its predecessor — it isn't Donnelly's job to teach us, but she still demands and warrants our attention.
(Secretly Canadian)

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