June 12, The First Time by Kelsea Ballerini
Total Number of Tracks: 12
Songs you might know:
– “Peter Pan”
– “Love Me Like You Mean It”
– “Yeah Boy”
My prior relationship with the album: Like many country artists, Kelsea Ballerini is a name I had heard many times over the last couple years without really being able to associate a particular song with her. I could’ve told you she was a country singer. I wouldn’t have been able to recognize her voice on the radio or tell you her most popular song is called “Peter Pan.” (though I definitely heard that song she made with the Chainsmokers before). My distaste for modern country music trends meant that I was in no hurry to acquaint myself with her.
I was prompted to give Ballerini a chance after her appearance on NBC’s Songland, a show that’s essentially Shark Tank but with music. It’s becoming more and more evident that Kelsea Ballerini has mainstream pop ambitions, as evident by the aforementioned collaboration with the Chainsmokers as well as her appearance on Songland. That country reputation paired with that pop ambition made me curious to know… what does her stuff actually sound like?
My impression this time around: The First Time was a pleasant surprise. I was bracing myself for shallow pop music with some light guitar and maybe some banjo, but it turns out Ballerini is more than capable of making country music with substance. She tends to shine most when singing about guys who have wronged her, as evident in “XO,” “Peter Pan,” and “Sirens.” All of these outdo the painfully generic “hey boy, I like you” songs such as “Dibs” and “Yeah Boy” (I do have a soft spot for “Looking at Stars” even though it is an equally generic ‘let’s have a night in the countryside by a river’ song that Nashville will never stop making).
THE strongest song on here though is “Secondhand Smoke” in which Ballerini reflects on her parents’ divorce and her fear of repeating their mistakes. It’s raw, it’s emotional, it’s beautiful in a way that is incredibly rare in mainstream music of any genre. We’re talking on the same level as Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well,” a compliment I don’t toss around lightly. And perhaps the most important thing: this feels like a song that only Kelsea Ballerini could’ve given the world.
The unfortunate thing about The First Time as an album is that the strongest tracks are strong enough to make the weak tracks look even weaker. We get a pretty good start with “XO” and “Peter Pan,” both rather traditional country tracks that have interesting lyrical hooks and sound live, just like God intended country music to be. Right when I was starting to get pumped about the rest of the album, “Peter Pan” fades into “Love Me Like You Mean It,” a Florida Georgia Line-esque pop country song that stung just a little bit more since Ballerini had already established she could be better than that. “Dibs” feels like a juvenile, Disney Channel attempt at country music when it has to follow the masterpiece that is “Secondhand Smoke.” A few too many of these songs feel like formulaic filler tracks that could’ve been put out by literally any up-and-coming Nashville-ian, and that kinda thing hurts worse when other tracks demonstrate that Ballerini is capable of true greatness.
While Ballerini clearly has real talent as a lyricist, and also does a great job with more traditional country sounds, I wish we saw more songs where we get to see BOTH of these in action at the same time. I want to love “Stilettos” due to its inspiring lyrics, but the pop country production holds it back. “Looking at Stars” has the reverse issue. We get a catchy, euphoric hook with more traditional country production but lyrically it’s the same generic country-date-in-the-middle-of-nowhere narrative that’s fine on its own, but feels incredibly derivative given its pervasiveness in country music.
As hard as I’m being on her, please know that all of this is because I believe in Kelsea Ballerini. This album singlehandedly made me believe in her. The talent as a singer and songwriter is most definitely there. And while I can tear it apart and be incredibly nitpick-y about every song, at the end of the day listening to the album beginning to end is a pleasant experience. Even the “weak” tracks on here aren’t actually BAD, they’re just overly similar to the rest of the genre. Given the backlog of album reviews I’ve been meaning to do, the fact that I listened to this album enough times to write about it within a day of listening to it speaks to its quality and my enjoyment of it. It makes me excited to see where Ballerini’s career goes, even if there are things I wish she would’ve done differently on The First Time.
Who would enjoy it? I think if you’re a country fan who previously wrote this off because you thought it would be “too pop” you should definitely give it a chance. The country sound is definitely there, even if certain tracks do experiment with more pop sounds. I also think if your hesitance towards country is because you didn’t grow up in a rural environment and therefore think you can’t relate to this genre, The First Time would be a great album for getting your feet wet in the world of country. Most of the songs are about universal themes of love and heartbreak, and it’s chock full of catchy hooks that pop fans would enjoy.
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