Stella Donnelly’s debut album, Beware Of The Dogs, opens with a threat: “Oh are you scared of me old man/ Or are you scared of what I’ll do/ You grabbed me with an open hand/ The world is grabbing back at you.” Donnelly’s sing-song delivery of “Old Man” sounds like a playground taunt and she has the brazen confidence of a child. But the themes Donnelly sings about are decidedly mature, and listening to Beware Of The Dogs has the effect of watching someone do stand-up about how terrible the world can be.
Donnelly broke out with a song called “Boys Will Be Boys” off of her 2017 EP Thrush Metal. On it, Donnelly sings of a friend’s rape and skewers society’s tendency to blame victims for their own assault: “Why was she all alone/ Wearing her shirt that low/ They said, ‘boys will be boys’/ Deaf to the word no.” The meditative lament made Donnelly a songwriter to watch, and she began touring outside of her native Australia. She wrote Beware Of The Dogs upon returning home and brought in a band to flesh out her sound. “Boys Will Be Boys” is included on the tracklist, as are 12 other songs that investigate an array of complicated ideas and show off Donnelly’s vision of what guitar pop can sound like in 2019.
This album finds Donnelly channeling a range of influences that perfectly suit her 26 years. Her lackadaisical but pop-inclined guitar work sounds off to the slacker rock of Mac DeMarco, and her cheeky yet socially-relevant lyrics are reminiscent of fellow Australian Courtney Barnett. The daydreamy synth interlude that opens “Bistro” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Beach House song circa Teen Dream, while “Seasons Greetings” invokes the laid-back California cool of Best Coast. But Beware Of The Dogs is firmly rooted in this era, with Donnelly aiming to catalogue and decipher our times. This is an album about power — who has it, who doesn’t, and what needs to be done to balance the scales.
The inequality Donnelly is concerned with doesn’t begin and end with sexism. On the searing title track, she sings of a global wealth gap that has become more of a chasm: “There’s no parliament worthy of this countryside/ All these pious fucks taking from the ninety-nine/ Now we’ll all endure what the sign told us we would/ Beware Of The Dogs, Beware Of The Dogs.” Though the song arrives somewhat late on the tracklist, it is the sobering thesis of this album. Donnelly’s voice is practically ragged on it and she ditches any clever one-liners in favor of straight-up condemning the politicians and male chauvinists, likening them to rabid dogs who need to be put down.
Donnelly’s songs are explicitly tied to politics even when they navigate interpersonal relationships. On the album’s buoyant single, “Tricks,” Donnelly addresses someone, one might assume a lover, who’s only satisfied when she’s performing for them: “You only like me when I do my tricks for you/ And you wear me out like you wear that southern cross tattoo.” The southern cross is an emblem from the Australian flag, and it has been compared to a swastika as it’s become associated with a growing white nationalist movement in the country. “Tricks” is a sprightly song that could stand in for a definition of “indie pop,” the springy chorus belying the violent subtext.
The obvious joy Donnelly brings to her craft gives Beware Of The Dogs a feeling of lightness in spite of its often heavy subject matter. Listening to it is like trying to drift off to sleep and suddenly getting hit with a series of unpleasant realizations. References to injustice abound, yes, but so do moments of levity. On “Mosquito,” Donnelly sings of unrequited love with revealing intimacy (“I used my vibrator/ Wishing it was you”) and on the zippy “Die” she compares an overwhelming crush to a car accident (“You can trust me baby/ But you’re always driving all over the road and/ I don’t wanna die”). The latter is a fizzy pop song that finds Donnelly practically singing in a round with herself, playing out like the sonic equivalent of dropping a Mento into a bottle of Sprite. Across the album, Donnelly is very skilled at making even the most absurd or grotesque lines into infectious sing-along opportunities.
Take “Watching Telly,” which skates on a seasick synth line that repeats over and over again, inducing a sense of nausea as Donnelly sweetly sings of systemic violence and institutions that do little to defend the vulnerable. “God loves his children but God loves men Jesus Christ/ She’s just trying to get by,” Donnelly sings on the chorus, her voice dipping in and out of focus as she parrots beliefs that aren’t her own. “Allergies” is a yearning acoustic song that would sound at home with the sparely produced tracks on Thrush Metal. On it, Donnelly equates a bad relationship with an allergic reaction, and she delivers a line that will sound just great when an audience inevitably shouts it right back at her: “I picked up these allergies somewhere on my own/ I’m scratching off my skin again I rub down to the bone.”
Artists are faced with a lot of pressure to “say something” right now, and there has certainly been an abundance of new music that is capital-I Important without actually being any good. The current state of the world feels especially dire, and it isn’t always easy to find the appropriate words to convey the appropriate sense of urgency. Beware Of The Dogs succeeds because it doesn’t pose any solutions and it doesn’t purport to. Instead, Donnelly provides her listeners with songs to laugh with and rage to, driven by hooks with the power to make someone out there feel a little bit less alone.
Beware Of The Dogs is out 3/8 via Secretly Canadian.
Other albums of note out this week:
• SASAMI’s blissed-out self-titled debut
• Helado Negro’s sublime This Is How You Smile
• Meat Puppets’ reunion album Dusty Notes
• Flight Of The Conchords’ Live In London, which originally aired in 2018
• Part I of Foals’ Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost
• MUNYA’s psych-inspired Blue Pine EP
• Leggy’s scuzzy post-punk album Let Me Know Your Moon
• Rosie Tucker’s incisive Never Not Never Not Never Not