Stella Donnelly ‘FLOOD’ Review

Australian songwriter Stella Donnelly releases her sophomore album under Secretly Canadian, a dreamy melancholic reflection featuring some of her most emotional work to date.

Stella Donnelly FLOOD Review

Layne Groom, Managing Editor

The Australian songwriter Stella Donnelly released her second LP Flood on August 26th 2022. Donnelly broke into the indie scene in 2017 with her single “Boys Will Be Boys,” a quiet—yet powerful—track commenting on rape culture during the time of the #MeToo movement in the western world. This then led to her 2019 album Beware of the Dogs which featured tracks such as “Tricks,” “Old Man,” and “Boys Will Be Boys.” The album is full of empowering lyrics, stunning vocal performances, and covers a range of topics from anger, as in the track “U Owe Me,” to intimacy, as in her love song “Mosquito.” Now, three years after that release, Donnelly is back with a new set of songs. This time resting her guitar in the corner of the room and instead filling this record with beautiful piano-driven tracks.

Having been born out of the COVID-19 lockdowns across Australia, this album showcases an intimate and introspective side of Donnelly. This record gives listeners the feeling of walking on a cold wet beach right after a downpour. The atmosphere is calm but not exactly happy and you are able to think about your past and future. Unlike on her previous record, the lyrics here are much more reserved and take a more abstract approach, while still maintaining Donelly’s charming Australian accent. This album follows many relationships in Donnelly’s life including her family, abusive partners, and even obsessed Instagram stalkers. Compared to her previous work, Donnelly is taking slower steps with these songs, not only lyrically but musically as well. The slowed-down pace of this album is accompanied by dreamy horn transitions and echoing backup choruses throughout.

The album begins with the two singles “Lungs” and “How Was Your Day?” “Lungs” is about a young Stella seeing her parents dealing with their landlord and the control he had over their lives. Despite the seriousness of the words, this song has a danceable drum beat and a sweet descending melody in the chorus. Being able to turn a serious topic into a dance song, while not a new concept, is groundbreaking for Donnelly’s discography as she has typically separated the two. This song is followed by “How Was Your Day?,” a song depicting a suffering relationship where both parties know they need to have a serious talk. However, neither have the courage to start it. The approach of this song is a noticeable shift in Donnelly’s style. The lyrics, composed of clean spoken dialogue, narrate everyday life over a catchy drum beat and guitar riff.

The track “Restricted Account” follows up the singles. This song is written about and told from the perspective of a stranger sending Donnelly messages on her Instagram account. Donnelly comments on the song via Apple Music, “This one came about in a weird way. I was getting kind of incessant DMs in my ‘other’ account on Instagram, and I would block that person, but they’d get another account and then message me on that account. I wanted to try and capture that feeling of devotion to a stranger that so many people get.” This song is written as a typical love song for what is an uncomfortable atypical relationship. Stella doesn’t seem to view the sender of this unrequited love as malicious, or even bad, and uses this song to understand the person’s feelings. To represent the uncomfortableness of the situation Donnelly has the horns, pianos, and guitars occasionally go off into—in her own words—”unbearable frequencies.” These frequencies are subtle, as the song progresses they become stronger and more prevalent, giving the listener a hint of the growing uncomfortableness of the situation.

The track “Underwater” highlights the theme of the record. Donnelly looks back on an abusive relationship with a past partner in this slow, lyric-driven ballad. The song begins and ends with the lines, “You say it takes a person seven tries to leave it / I can remember at least five.” This reference is to research that shows it can take a survivor up to seven attempts to leave an abusive relationship. Donnelly, now older with a greater understanding of relationships, can reflect on this time with her partner and see the number of times she had attempted to leave but failed. The most exceedingly somber lines come during the bridge, with Donnelly explaining the current state of the relationship with her partner to her mother: “Oh, mama, it’s getting worse / I take on your anger and hurt / I’m never really, really at home.”

Next are the songs “Medals” and “Move Me,” two of the strongest on the record. “Medals” sounds like it is right off of Beware of the Dogs with its playful, sassy lyrics and clean guitar sound. This track describes someone who “peaked” much earlier than this point in their life and is stuck in that earlier time mentally. This person’s friends are trying to push them out of that spot so they can move on with their life. “Move Me” is a love song Donnelly wrote for her mother, specifically after her mother’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. This song is told from the perspective of Donnelly as a child. This childlike nature is articulated perfectly with a nursery-like melody throughout the verses. 

The title track “Flood” feels like the climax and midpoint of the album. This slow, sad, dreamy track is about Donelly’s experience during the COVID-19 lockdowns in Melbourne. “It felt like a flood of trauma. I wrote it in the dark, rainy depths of a Melbourne winter lockdown and everyone was going through their own version of depression,” Donnelly tells NME. Just as Donnelly intended it, this song pushes out all the emotions that have been building up across the first half of the record.

The latter half of the record is much weaker than the first half. While Donnelly maintains the themes and ideas of the record lyrically, musically it starts to fall short. Especially with the tracks “This Week” and “Oh My My.” “This Week” features some of the most disappointing vocals from Donnelly we have seen to date. The backing chorus that adds to so many of the hooks on this record feels very out of place on this track as well. Then comes “Oh My My,” a song dedicated to her late grandmother. While the lyrics are sincere, musically it feels too similar to earlier tracks without adding its own touch, making it forgettable at best.

The album recovers itself with “Morning Silence,” a stripped-down acoustic track. Donnelly writes again about the emotions she is feeling while taking care of her sick mother. This song features some of the most heart-wrenching lyrics on the album:

Is it a pipe dream to want my children

Never to wake up and hear a woman screaming

Wish I could water it down for you but

My mouth is dry from thinking about it.

Donnelly ends the album with “Cold,” a song that doesn’t just tie together the ideas of the album, but also allows them to continue beyond it. The song feels uplifting, hopeful, and has much more energy than the tracks preceding it. It expresses the idea that she can move on from these past abusive relationships and move on to the next chapter in her life. The track ends with Donelly telling her past partners, “You are not big enough for my love.”

Overall, Donnelly has proved she can branch out into a different sound while maintaining her identity through charming, thoughtful lyrics and beautiful high-range vocals. The writing on this record does not fail in any spot and, despite a small hiccup musically towards the end of the record, maintains its structure and theme. With this second album of hers, Stella Donnelly does not disappoint.

Album Rating – 8/10

Favorite Tracks – “Underwater,” “How Was Your Day?,” “Medals,” “Move Me”

Least Favorite – “Oh My My,” “This Week”