Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Stella Donnelly’s sophomore record, Flood.
Like the nomadic waders on her upcoming album cover, Stella Donnelly has spent the past few years in motion. Facing mounting obstacles — including border restrictions, high rent prices and black mold — she passed through places including Fremantle, Williams, Guilderton, Margaret River and Melbourne, unable to see her family. But roving among crowds, the Australian singer-songwriter became freshly aware of her relative smallness; simultaneously, she considered just how much one person holds inside.
On her second album, Flood, Donnelly’s seeking steady ground amid tides of uncertainty, desire and discomfort. Her song-vignettes — she originally wrote 43 altogether — open the album up to numerous characters and perspectives.
As in birdwatching, a hobby she found during lockdown, Donnelly has a keen eye for the smallest detail moving amid a complex landscape. That’s evident in a number of Flood’s songs: what may sound lullaby-simple unfurls when you look a bit closer at the lyrics.
The outwardly cutesy “How Was Your Day?” — made so by its warm tone and upbeat tempo as well as playful talk-singing — reveals, in its lyrics, a couple avoiding a serious conversation; poppy opener “Lungs” repeats the eerie “like a child” in the background, grounding the events of the song with a reminder of naivety and smallness. The gently finger-plucked “Morning Silence,” with its folk-reminiscent double-tracked vocals, could easily pass for a soft tune, but that illusion is shattered by the lyrics: “Someone came in here to spread my limbs out / And leave my body in a compromised position / Could it be real that it’s really me here / I couldn’t help us, I couldn’t save me.”
Flood tangles endlessly with youth, and how it both sweetens and sharpens experiences, the child being that small self we carry. “This Week” moves through that adoration and then disdain for the younger self. She considers: “I’ll wear all my beads I made when I was five / Email my favourite band and say hey… and I’ll feel better” only to decide, “I’ll throw away shit I made when I was five.” On “Lungs,” aside from the aforementioned echo, she adds, “I’ll be a child, rest of my life.”
Then, of course, there’s “Morning Silence”: “Is it a pipe dream to want my children / Never to wake up and hear a woman screaming?” Donnelly’s penchant for portraying innocence is sometimes painfully wrenching on such tracks, which reference sexual and physical assault, informed by her own work as an ambassador for a domestic violence charity.
Being unable to control both your own destiny and that of your children is terrifying (“Same old fight was had today / Great grandchild will see the same”), and the idea surfaces again on “Underwater,” which directly references abusive relationships: “They say it takes a person seven tries to leave it.” Donnelly’s voice is frayed on the track, and takes precedence over spare piano, a cautious but surefooted ode to moving forward. It’s mired in her own experience, too, as she was sequestered from family (just as abused partners tend to be) — look to the mournful “Oh mama it’s getting worse … I’m never really really at home.”
Just as the narrator of the song accuses, “You drew back the curtain on my adolescence,” Donnelly is doing the same throughout Flood. But for her, “drawing back” the curtain is more of a flutter. She’s never revealing too much, offering just the barest sweep of ankles for the smallest moment. The second you can focus on a single thought — a single bird — it’s lost amid the sweep of the flock.
Caitlin Wolper is a writer whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Vulture, Slate, MTV News, Teen Vogue, and more. Her first poetry chapbook, Ordering Coffee in Tel Aviv, was published in October by Finishing Line Press. She shares her music and poetry thoughts (with a bevy of exclamation points, and mostly lowercase) at @CaitlinWolper.