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.
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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