Stella Donnelly: Beware of the Dogs review – sweet-sounding songs with a killer bite

In her accomplished debut, the Perth singer-songwriter’s targets range from abusive men to allergies, with sharp, but delicate, delivery

From its opening lines, Stella Donnelly’s debut record Beware of the Dogs lulls you into a false sense of safety, letting you get up close before it bares its teeth and aims for the jugular.

“Your personality traits don’t count / If you put your dick in someone’s face,” she sweetly sings, a promise to the titular Old Man on the album’s lead single.

Her sugary sing-song betrays a venomous aftertaste as she issues a timely threat to badly behaved men accustomed to relying on their power to protect them from consequences.

It’s territory she has covered before. Donnelly was just 23 when she wrote her break-out single, 2017’s Boys Will Be Boys: a painfully tender chronicle of a friend’s sexual assault. The lyrics tapped into the global conversation about men like former Stanford student Brock Turner trying to avoid blame for their crimes.

In the past few years, in the wake of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, young women artists have been emboldened to turn up the volume on their experiences, reassured that audiences would listen and support them. It’s especially impressive that Donnelly, a then-unknown singer from Fremantle, Western Australia, released Boys Will Be Boys in mid–2017, six months before the #MeToo hashtag began to gain traction and reinforce the need for women’s experiences of sexual violence to be heard and believed.

“Like a mower in the morning, I will never let you rest,” she warns her friend’s assailant in the closing seconds of the song. The imagery is awash in the familiarity of suburbia, where secrets are shielded from view behind lace curtains in the same way that Donnelly’s message is located beneath her sweet brand of guitar pop – like a razor blade hidden in a bowl of custard.

Donnelly’s bread and butter is in this kind of observational lyricism, and she masters it on tracks like Lunch, where a visit to the United States consulate brings with it a realisation that the lover she’s leaving behind isn’t worth the homesickness; they’ve only got time for themselves, “and I’ve only got time for lunch”.

Elsewhere, such as on new single Tricks, she focuses on a very specific human target: an enigmatic antagonist who listens to Kyle and Jackie O’s radio show and proudly sports a Southern Cross tattoo. Rather than describing a specific person, she draws the outline of a type and relies on us to assume the rest. Donnelly’s playful, teasing tone is like a verbal wink when she sings, “You only like me when I do my tricks for you”. It’s a clever acknowledgement of how we perform parts of ourselves for other people, but there’s a distance between her and her subject here that makes it difficult to grasp onto what – or who – is drawing her contempt.

She’s at her best when she’s revelling in specifics and drawing us into intimate confessions, as on Mosquito, when she spends a Tuesday afternoon in the company of her reliable vibrator; or on Face It, when her doubts get the best of her and she admits to having a pasted-on smile and being locked out of her body – and her confident voice reaches wonderfully warbley heights when it is allowed room to breathe. Fittingly, on Allergies, she sings through a blocked up nose and breathes through a wet sniffle.

As you journey through this accomplished debut, that voice becomes a trusted companion, inviting you into Donnelly’s perspective before gently leading you back out into the world alone. Her approach – to pair biting wit with a delicate delivery, accompanied by twinkling, twangy guitars – is so affecting that when the record strays into more experimental and electronic production moments (such as on Bistro, Die and Watching Telly) you feel a little abandoned, as if led on a surprise detour.

That is, until Donnelly returns to offer an arm and steer you back to where you were quite content to go all along.

• Stella Donnelly’s Beware of the Dogs is out now


Brodie Lancaster

The GuardianTramp

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