December 9, 2023

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Stella Donnelly: Flood Album Review


Flood’s first line, from “Lungs,” goes: “Maybe it’s the last time that I’ll see you putting too much salt on the story,” and whoever it’s sung to, maybe it also stands as Donnelly’s challenge to herself. Beware of the Dogs was spiked with little lyrical fireworks—gleeful punchlines, casual references to masturbation. The writing here is subtler, and acute even when she’s describing far less clear-cut scenarios than those of her debut. The sweetly brisk “How Was Your Day?” sets the scene for its rocky relationship with everyday images of people doing their best to ignore looming danger—like the “white-knuckled mum in the passenger seat”—and Donnelly outlines the polite detente between a doomed couple in pristine spoken word. Then the chorus cracks open and the lava churns out: “You said, ‘I can’t do this anymore, I can’t do this anymore/We let our patterns of bad behaviors take over/I’m no longer keeping score/Levelheadedness has made way for a disastrous love, I know it, you know it.’” It’s a mouthful, but it feels true to life: a desperate but comically reasonable eruption from someone who is sure there’s more out there for them than reasonableness.

Donnelly has an eye for the fault lines that threaten to reduce the status quo to rubble. The riled-up, monomaniacal housemate in “Medals” makes everyone feel uneasy, “like watching a movie next to a chain smoker”; the sweetly sing-songy “Move Me” observes, “You were always clumsy in a good way/Now it’s turned to something we all fear.” To try to save them, she insists, “I wanna be yours ’til there’s no me,” a relatably foolhardy attempt to scaffold someone else’s instability.

Balancing out Donnelly’s astute observations are moments of real vulnerability—often accentuated by paring back the band’s usual genial dynamic. She sings to piano and a rising haze of reverb on “Underwater,” a song about escaping someone intent on destroying her security that’s as shocked as emerging blinking into the daylight. She channels a chorister’s poise for “Oh My My My,” a song for her late grandmother, and you feel the effort of her maintaining her composure. “Part of me died,” she sings in a grave register, a theme she picks up across Flood: where and in whom we place our trust, and what happens when they can’t hold it anymore.

That theme recurs in the minimalist “This Week,” one of the album’s many highlights. It’s a song about taking the small but integral steps to recovery from some rupture, where any deviation from a careful path might upset the whole endeavor. The sighing horn fanfare that crops up midway feels like a begrudging celebration of that work from someone perhaps not inclined to self-compassion; given Donnelly’s usually conversational tone, the rare quiver of vibrato that creeps into her voice as she ventures, “I feel better,” is immensely moving. It’s as if she’s stepping outside those limited bounds for the first time in a long time, confident that she can take a risk and still find a soft place to land. Her quiet yet spirited second album offers one too.

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Stella Donnelly: Flood

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