I was intrigued by Stella Donnelly as soon as I heard the track Boys Will be Boys. A bold and brave attack on rape culture and misogyny, it was an obvious standout on her 2018 EP Thrush Metal. With lines such as ‘You invaded her magnificence/Put your hand over her face’ and ‘Your father told you that you’re innocent/Told you women rape themselves’, all layered over a sparse and simple guitar tune, it felt like a heroic move from a new artist who was determined to set out her stall from the very beginning.
Boys Will Be Boys is the only song from Thrush Metal that makes it onto Stella’s debut LP. It is, again, the standout. But its ideas resonate throughout an album that fits firmly in the #MeToo era. From opener Old Man to penultimate track Watching Telly, Beware of the Dogs takes aim at men who misuse their power and lets them know that their time is up. There has been a lot of music that has wrestled with these themes in recent times, but Stella has the lyrical wit and ‘two fucks’ attitude to stand out from the crowd. She should be hugely applauded for her message and intentions.
Despite a real admiration for those elements of the album, though, there are a few factors that prevented me from falling in love with it. One of those elements is Lily Allen. Lily, like Stella, is someone whose sentiments and ideas can only be celebrated. They are two artists who speak up for their gender, for victims of sexual abuse, and for people in a whole heap of other difficult circumstances. But, unfortunately, they also make the occasional annoying pop song.
Beware of the Dogs sounds like a Lily Allen album. It’s a better Lily Allen album than Lily Allen’s last album, but still suffers from the same setbacks. While Boys Will Be Boys is a musically subtle and sparse song with a searing message at its heart, songs like Die, Tricks, and Watching Telly are delivered a little too chirpily, and with too many implied winks to the camera, to really hit home in the way that must have been hoped for.
That those tracks disrupted an otherwise interesting and involving debut will probably be debated by some. I can see this album winning Stella an army of fans. And, for an early career artist, there are infinite worse things than being compared to a multi-million album selling musician who was shortlisted for last year’s Mercury Prize. But, for me at least, there are enough moments on this album to show that Stella could deliver something more consistent and which plays more on the parts of her skill set that make her stand out.
As well as on Boys Will Be Boys, Stella really shows what she’s capable of on Lunch, Mosquito, and the album’s slow and sombre closer Face It. In the latter song, the theatrics are dropped, the over the top one-liners disappear, and we are treated to a straightforward admission of her struggles to accept the ending of a relationship. This is the kind of thing at which she excels. And there is more than enough of that here to mean that the second album will be worth a listen, we’ll just have to wait and see which direction she chooses to follow. Does she want to be a Lily Allen composite, or strike out on her own bolder path?
Words by Fran Slater.