Off the Shelf: Finding Common Ground in Stella Donnelly’s “Beware of the Dogs” and Ali Smith’s “Autumn”

Off the Shelf: Finding Common Ground in Stella Donnelly’s “Beware of the Dogs” and Ali Smith’s “Autumn”

Summer, for me, has always been an opportunity to lose myself in the world of books: whether it’s required summer reading or searching for the perfect beachside read, the season pushes me toward the crisp, fragrant pages of new novels. But last summer, as I stood in a bookstore in front of shelves and shelves of books, I felt paralyzed by options. “Why isn’t there a service that recommends you a book based on an album that you love?” I wondered. Now, I’ve decided to take the task upon myself: to recommend new books based on an albums that I love.

Throughout my life, I’ve turned to music for many things: comfort, inspiration, catharsis, guidance. I want to turn to literature for the same, but am often overwhelmed by where to begin. So I’m encouraging myself to read more, and bringing you along with me. In each installment of “Off the Shelf,” I’ll pair an album with a book: a novel, poetry collection, memoir, recipe book, you name it. These aren’t meant to be exact complements. My choices might be guided by similarities in themes or tone, but will aim to illuminate the complexities of each work, and hopefully inspire you to discover a new favorite read (and maybe even album!) in the process.

This piece is part of Off the Shelf, a column where I recommend a book based on an album that I love. For my first pairing, I turned to one of my favorite albums of the year so far, Stella Donnelly’s Beware of the Dogs, and matched it with the novel Autumn by Ali Smith. If you’re a fan of Donnelly’s stark humor, thoughtful social critique, and playful attitude, you’re going to love Ali Smith.

I fell in love with Stella Donnelly’s music on first listen. The singer-songwriter a skilled guitarist and quick-witted lyricist, and she uses that humor to tackle some big themes. Upon reading Ali Smith’s novel Autumn, I was immediately reminded of Donnelly’s playful and intricate songs. What struck me about both Donnelly and Smith is their stark examinations of modern politics and the different tactics they use to unpack border policies, national identity, and deep cultural divisions through personal and inviting works.

Perth musician Stella Donnelly released her debut full-length album, Beware of the Dogs, in March 2019. The album is laced with vivid imagery that exposes Australia’s complicated national identity. Donnelly uses personal anecdotes and quick turns-of-phrase to speak bluntly about the country’s political climate. What makes her songwriting unique is her ever present sense of humor. She uses sarcasm and wit as tools to approach divisive topics and paint them with her own experiences.

Autumn, published in 2016, is the first in a series of four novels by writer Ali Smith, each based on a season. Smith was born in Scotland and currently lives in England, where the novel takes place. Autumn centers around 32-year-old Elisabeth Demand and her elderly friend Daniel Gluck as they navigate London in the wake of the Brexit vote. Where Donnelly uses humor and sarcasm to poke fun at politically-charged topics, Smith breaks these titanic themes apart with fragmented, collage-like prose. 

Donnelly and Smith prove that addressing socially polarized environments doesn’t have to create dense or grim art. They show that this kind of criticism can be personal, it can be accessible, and it can be playful.

Autumn opens with a surreal dream sequence that Daniel has while lying in a hospital bed, dying. The next scene jumps to a dreary London post office, where Elisabeth is waiting to renew her passport. This abrupt juxtaposition of surreal and quotidian descriptions sets the tone for the novel. The post office employee sends Elisabeth away because her head is five millimeters too small in her passport photo. This frustrating exchange demonstrates how Smith sizes up the U.K.’s walls post-Brexit.

Stella Donnelly - Tricks

Like Smith, Donnelly infuses her songs with small but sharp images of everyday life. “Tricks,” like many of Donnelly’s songs, sounds deceptively cheerful. While the chords are sunny and the tempo upbeat, the song’s lyrics call out an opinionated and hot-tempered protagonist. He wears a Southern Cross tattoo, a controversial symbol that bears importance to Native populations, and in recent years has been adopted by white nationalist groups in Australia. “This song is a playful zoom-in on the ‘Australian Identity’ and a loose dig at the morons that used to yell sh*t at me when I played cover gigs on Sunday afternoons,” Donnelly explained in a statement about “Tricks.”

Donnelly is no newcomer to using her music to speak out about the issues that matter to her, even if it makes others uncomfortable. In the fall of 2017, during the height of the #MeToo movement, Donnelly released “Boys Will be Boys,” a vulnerable but direct song about her friend’s sexual assault. Donnelly included the song in Beware of the Dogs, along with other critiques of masculinity.

Stella Donnelly - Old Man

In “Old Man,” Donnelly responds to a faceless, white-suited, six-figure earning man with a simple but searing statement: “You grabbed me with an open hand / The world is grabbing back at you,” she sings in a nonchalant tone. Through these songs, Donnelly is able to call out a culture of complacence and male violence, and she does so in a way that invites her listener in, using humor and a sense of playfulness to break apart these gigantic social issues.

While humor is Donnelly’s weapon of choice, Smith opts for a different one: collage. Throughout Autumn, we see the arc of a lifelong friendship between Elisabeth and her elderly neighbor, Daniel. Their friendship spans decades, following Elisabeth from childhood into adulthood. Daniel teaches her about life, storytelling, and art. He shares stories from his days as a songwriter, when he would socialize with London’s pop artists. One of these artists was painter and collage master Pauline Boty, whose whimsical work Daniel describes to Elisabeth in detail throughout the novel.

Boty was a founder of the British pop art movement and is recognized by critics as the only female British pop artist. Her work celebrates femininity and openly criticizes her culture’s patriarchal attitudes. Magazine cutouts sit on top of scraps of lace and bright blocks of paint. Women’s bodies dance around canvasses, loudly filling the space. 

Daniel’s descriptions of Boty’s collages fill the novel’s pages with color, and Smith takes inspiration from the art form in her writing. Each chapter jumps throughout space and time, pasting together seemingly disparate images to create a complex work. This collage-like writing style places post office visits and surreal experiences side-by-side, shedding light on the multitude of experiences that create an individual’s, and a nation’s, identity.

“Collage is an institute of education where all the rules can be thrown into the air, and size and space and time and foreground and background all become relative,” Daniel tells a young Elisabeth. “Because of these skills everything you think you know gets made into something new and strange.”

Through their respective mediums, Donnelly and Smith both achieve this warping of perspective. By using humor and collage—by mixing the shocking with the mundane—the two artists snap us out of our frame of reference and show us our world through a new lens. They turn their familiar, personal realities into something “new and strange” and teach us about ourselves in the process.