Stella Donnelly: Flood review – dextrous songs and whip-smart lyrics reward a closer listen

Donnelly’s knack for finding the universal in the ordinary persists, in a more internal second album that’s awash with vivid imagery

Stella Donnelly approaches difficult topics with grace, compassion and a healthy dose of fury. Boys Will Be Boys, the standout track of her excellent 2019 debut album Beware of the Dogs, was a crash tackle of rape culture, delivered with such sweet earnest that its kicker – “time to pay the fucking rent” – hit even harder. Burning down the establishment never sounded so calm.

Elsewhere on that record, the Western Australian artist exuded a playful brightness that often belied the serious content of the songs – she excoriated toxic masculinity, power imbalances in relationships and the workplace, and institutional racism, through snippets of personal experience and social observation.

Her second album, Flood, is a much more internal affair, focusing instead on the dynamics between people in intimate relationships, and swapping anger for a probing curiosity and sense of acceptance. It’s also more musically subdued, replacing angular indie rock guitars with understated synths, muted horns and a major focus on piano (a popular choice at the moment, it seems – another Australian artist with an album out this week, Julia Jacklin, has also pivoted to writing primarily on piano). But despite turning the volume knob down, Donnelly’s knack for finding the universal in the ordinary persists, as she presents small stories of daily interactions that reveal wider truths.

Some of these stories are deeply personal – the lovely piano-only track Oh My My My details the passing of Donnelly’s grandmother, more stark and emotionally nude than anything she has released before. But she also steps into other worlds with ease, singing from different perspectives to give glimpses into disparate lives – on the first single and opener Lungs, for instance, she inhabits the mind of a child whose family is being evicted. As with all of Donnelly’s work, the devil is in the lyrical details: when she sings “long live the asbestos on the rental”, you can see it crumbling.

Like many people during the pandemic, Donnelly took the time to connect with nature, becoming a keen birdwatcher. Flood takes its sensory cues from the natural world, with a smooth, liquid sheen to many of the songs. The imagery of water breaks like gentle waves across the record, whether used as a metaphor for an abusive relationship (the haunting Underwater) or, on the title track, propelled by an anchoring piano line, a push-pull love that’s as overwhelming as drowning. It’s a meditative listen, with the softness of both lyrics and sound – including more layered background vocals than she’s used before, with male voices lending additional weight and depth – blending to create a slow sense of drift.

While Flood is overall darker than the musician’s past work, there’s still a lot of joy to be found – anyone who’s experienced a live Donnelly set will know how infectiously bubbly she is, which often bleeds into her music. The single How Was Your Day? tracks the everyday minutiae of a struggling relationship, with Donnelly speak-singing over the top of the bright, quintessentially Australian “striped sunlight sound” (think The Go-Betweens and Dick Diver). The expansive sounds of closing track Cold show the evolution of the musician’s songwriting, culminating in a full-bodied group chant that’s close to bursting: “you are not big enough for my love”. The dexterity and mood across the album brings to mind the now defunct Melbourne indie pop band The Lucksmiths and their 2003 record Naturaliste, which similarly took inspiration from the great outdoors to highlight interpersonal conflicts through whip-smart lyricism and vivid imagery.

Flood is an album that requires patient and careful listening, peeling back the layers in each song to find the pulsing heart beneath. There’s nothing as immediate as the songs on Donnelly’s debut, but that’s not a bad thing – these 11 tracks ebb and flow like water, washing into and over one another to create a sense of something pure and boundless.

  • Flood by Stella Donnelly is out now


Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Big Scary: Me and You review – introspective and varied, with wonderful, harrowing moments
The Melbourne band’s compelling fifth record is concerned with love found and lost – and ends with a heartbreaking one-two punch

Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen

22, Sep, 2022 @5:30 PM

Article image
5 Seconds of Summer are learning how to be happy: ‘There’s parts of our career that I don’t remember’
The Australian pop band are all still in their 20s, but have spent a decade touring and recording ‘in an endless loop’. Now they’ve swapped parties for feeling at peace

Brodie Lancaster

20, Sep, 2022 @5:30 PM

Article image
Aria awards 2022: Rüfüs Du Sol and Amyl and the Sniffers among top nominees
Dance group leads with seven nominations, with Flume, the Kid Laroi, Baker Boy and Vance Joy also winning multiple nods

Kelly Burke

11, Oct, 2022 @11:25 PM

Article image
Inside the Mind of Daniel Johns: Silverchair frontman reveals all ... again
A three-part docuseries, a memorabilia exhibition and an upcoming featurette come hot on the heels of a hit podcast. Have we reached peak Daniel Johns?

Nathan Jolly

24, Aug, 2022 @5:30 PM

Article image
Ziggy Ramo: Sugar Coated Lies review – bold, uncompromising hip-hop that takes a new path
Released independently on 26 January, the artist’s second album has more mainstream appeal than his first – but is as unapologetically political as ever

Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen

27, Jan, 2023 @2:00 PM

Article image
Beckah Amani captures the chaos: ‘Growing up right now, we’re stuck in this whirlwind’
The Tanzanian-Australian artist’s debut EP whips through growing pains, schoolyard racism and climate change – and finds beauty amid it all

Shaad D'Souza

20, Oct, 2022 @3:00 PM

Article image
The 15 biggest Australian dancefloor anthems – sorted!
Prepare for your most synth-filled Monday ever, for here is the definitive, entirely subjective list of Australian anthems that fill dancefloors without fail

Kris Swales

04, Sep, 2022 @5:30 PM

Article image
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

Brodie Lancaster

08, Mar, 2019 @9:13 PM

Article image
Paul Kelly: ‘I never heard back from Shane Warne – maybe he didn’t like the reference to his mother’
The prolific songwriter and huge sports fan has a new compilation packed with songs about famous figures – including Warne, Adam Goodes and Eddie Betts

Andrew Stafford

23, Feb, 2023 @2:00 PM

Article image
How Painters and Dockers’ hedonistic rocker Paulie Stewart cheated death – with help from some ‘punk’ nuns
Thanks to a liver transplant and a Timorese nun familiar with Stewart’s link to the Balibo Five, the Melbourne singer is alive to tell his remarkable story

Andrew Stafford

05, Dec, 2022 @1:55 AM