June 13, Unapologetically (Deluxe Edition) by Kelsea Ballerini
Genre: Country according to Apple Music, but really just pop music with some acoustic guitar sometimes.
Total Number of Tracks: 15 (This includes the 12 original songs from the standard edition, two original bonus tracks, and a live cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.”)
Songs you might know:
– “Miss Me More”
– “I Hate Love Songs”
My prior relationship with the album: I really didn’t get into Kelsea Ballerini until a few weeks ago when she appeared on NBC’s show, Songland. After being pleasantly surprised by her debut album, The First Time, (read that review here), listening to her sophomore effort, Unapologetically, was the next logical step. I hadn’t actually heard any of the songs on here beforehand, but I expected it to be along the same lines as that first album.
My impression this time around: This album gave me hella strong Red vibes, as in Taylor Swift’s 4th album, Red. Both are more or less pop albums that pay some lip service to country music, and in both cases the real strength lies in creative lyrics and storytelling. I was honestly somewhat surprised to see Swift didn’t have writing credits on “Roses,” the songwriting style is that similar. All in all, I don’t know that the pop-ier production on this is a BAD thing, but I do think that it’s a rather dramatic departure from The First Time, especially since it’s relatively common for sophomore albums to feel like rehashes of the artist’s debut.
As already stated, the real strength of Unapologetically is the inventive lyricism, which often allows her to get away with not-particularly-inventive production. Ballerini has a great ability to come up with creative lyrics for universal feelings. One of my favorite examples of this is “Miss Me More” which explores losing your own identity in a relationship and reclaiming that old identity when the relationship ends. She kicks off the song singing about giving up her red lipstick and high heels to appease her ex. It conjures up this image of a woman who’s confident and unafraid to stand out in a crowd. Right away, we get a sense that that is who Kelsea was before this relationship, and I think it’s this really interesting analogy for how women are expected to downplay their own strength, sexuality, and ego just so that their man can feel better about himself.
“I Hate Love Songs” has a similar strength. Ballerini establishes how much she hates all the cheesy romantic cliches that people associate with love. So it becomes so much more powerful that she loves her man enough to write one anyway. It somehow puts a fresh spin on a love song which is no small task. Impeccable lyricism like this helps Unapologetically to feel special despite the fact that it’s about all the same themes everyone else is singing about. I also appreciate how Ballerini balances breakup songs with love songs without sacrificing quality. This is perhaps the biggest improvement over The First Time, where Ballerini seemed unable to sing happier songs without following the typical country music formulas.
One thing I will say is that this is one of those cases where I actually think the deluxe version weakens the album more than it strengthens it. It appears as though Ballerini was attempting to have a narrative running through the album. The first third is all the breakup songs, starting with the saddest (“Graveyard”) and transitioning into apathy (“Get Over Yourself”) and a retrospective look back on that relationship (“Roses”). The middle third are songs that don’t really focus on love or crushes at all, but instead on self-reflection. Such songs include the good-but-forgettable “Machine Heart” and “In Between”, which is basically Britney Spears’ “Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” but well-written. The final third of the album is where you’ll find all the sappy love songs.
This narrative works decently well if you were to stop after the first ten songs. This would make the final song “Unapologetically” and this title track is the closest thing the album has to a “happily ever after.” Instead we get two more sure-they’re-alright-I-guess tracks which are also on the standard edition: “Music” which seems to be more of a sex song than a love song (nothing wrong with that, but I might’ve put it before “Unapologetically” for a better narrative arc). Finally we get “Legends” which is a little too similar to “Roses” both lyrically and musically to justify both tracks being on the album (I prefer “Roses” in case anyone’s wondering). However, at least “Music” and “Legends” don’t UNDO anything we’ve heard thus far either.
Then we transition into the Deluxe-Exclusive tracks, which kicks off with “Fun and Games.” Hands down my least favorite of the album, this song describes a sort of friends-with-benefits relationship that undermines the entire love story the first twelve songs told. Musically, it reminds me of all my least favorite tracks from The First Time, feeling like it could have been recorded by any up-and-coming Nashville-ian. Next we get “I Think I Fell In Love Today” which is a decent enough track that perhaps SHOULD have been on the standard edition but doesn’t make sense here. It’s totally cool if you don’t want to have a running narrative through your album, but don’t set up a narrative that works well through 2/3 of the album and then becomes confusing on later tracks.
Who would enjoy it? I think Unapologetically is ideal for people who enjoy circa 2012 Taylor Swift who hadn’t COMPLETELY abandoned country music yet. For that reason, I’d also recommend this to pop fans who previously overlooked it because of the country label. On the flip side, those that are expecting a more traditional country-sounding record like The First Time might be disappointed.