Album Anne-alysis: kelsea by Kelsea Ballerini

Genre: Pop with a country flavor. But by “country flavor” I mean in the way that La Croix is “fruit flavored.”
Year: 2020
Runtime: 46:15
Total Number of Tracks: 13
Songs you might know: 
– “club”
– “homecoming queen?”
– “the other girl” (ft. Halsey)

My prior relationship with the album and artist: I liked Kelsea Ballerini’s first two albums and have reviewed them both if you’re curious. However, I didn’t really stay on top of this album rollout, so I hadn’t heard anything outside of “Homecoming Queen?” which seemed sweet, but unimpressive.

 My impression this time around: The thing I love most about Ballerini is her lyricism. She knows how to tell a story. She knows how to use interesting imagery to make those stories come to life. She knows how to write about things outside of how horny she is or whichever dude broke her heart last. I’m happy to report that kelsea delivers all of that in droves. There’s so many strong narratives and interesting ideas for songs on this thing.

Unfortunately, some of the production choices on here prevent this thing from reaching its full potential. Ballerini is caught between the world of country music and world of pop music, and unfortunately that inability to commit to one or the other plagues about half the songs on the album. She’s shying away from things like banjo, fiddle, etc. that make country music fun and interesting. But she’s also shying away from the more eclectic beats and variety of influences that make pop music fun and interesting. That leaves a rather limited array of sounds and styles to work with. Some combination of acoustic and electric guitar. A simplistic drum loop. Bam! You’ve got a song.

Songs that exemplify this include “club,” “homecoming queen?” “love me like a girl,” “love and hate,” “the way I used to,”and  “needy.” All of these are perfectly okay songs and some are even quite good. But there’s this sameness and predictability that didn’t need to be there. “Club” is a great concept lyrically, an anthem about not wanting to go to the club. But it’s not the type of backyard barbecue country song that sounds like it’s rebelling against club music, nor is there enough of a club beat for it to be deliberately cheeky. While I absolutely love “love you like a girl” The glossy pop-ness of it takes away the vulnerability it might’ve achieved with more of a raw, stripped down vibe. Then you have songs like “love and hate” or “the way I used to” which aren’t really bad but whenever I get to them I have that thought of “oh yeah, this song, I forgot it was here.”

What’s a bit of a shame about this is that there’s one song that would’ve really benefitted from that sound: the closing track “la.” But because so many other tracks have this same vibe, it loses its effect. This song literally about being caught between Los Angeles and Tennessee. Ballerini describes the lure of LA: its beaches, her famous friends who live there, the views, but she also expresses anxiety that she’d miss home or make Tennessee mad if she uprooted her life for Los Angeles. Borrowing sounds from both of these worlds could’ve been so much more impactful if the whole country-meets-pop vibe was unique to this track. But by the time we get to “la” this sound feels like business as usual. It feels like Ballerini’s same ol’ bag of tricks rather than a deliberate choice made to reflect a lyrical theme.

There’s only one song on here that successfully blends the two genres, which is “hole in the bottle.” That one’s certainly in the running for my favorite track on the whole album. It’s the only one where I hear the country influence AND the pop influence and think “yeah, this really works!” I’ve been singing this song to myself all week. It’s catchy, it’s fun, and the borderline flirtatious energy here is a great juxtaposition to the more masculine feeling that’s common among country drinking songs. After so many bros have professed their love of cold beer for so long, this feels like a fun, feminine addition to the genre.

Most of the other album’s high points come when Ballerini is further to one end of the country/pop spectrum than the other. I love her collaboration with Halsey, “the other girl.” It’s this really interesting idea for a song where two women are dating the same man and wondering who is the proverbial “other girl.” It gives me vibes of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” (thematically, not musically). The song captures the heartbreak and insecurity of both of these women as they ponder whether or not their man might leave them for someone else, yet they never antagonize each other. It sounds like Halsey’s flavor of pop music moreso than Ballerini’s version of “country” music, which I think is a good thing! If this song had made a half assed attempt to pander to the country crowd, it would’ve lost it’s charm.

On the country side of things, you have the album’s other collaboration, this one with Kenny Chesney. “Half of my hometown” is a beautiful track that captures small town America. It reflects on how some people are proud of their town and happy to continue life there while others moved on to other things. It doesn’t treat either path as bad or wrong. It’s the kind of introspective songwriting that Ballerini does best and the more traditional country sound lets that songwriting shine.

I still have a ton of respect for Kelsea Ballerini as a lyiricst, but I really hope that on her next album she stops trying to play both sides of the aisle. There’s some great ideas going on here, but I don’t really think any of them reach the sort of epic anthem level of “Miss Me More” from her last album. All in all, it’s definitely an album with some songs I’ll keep jamming out to, but I’m not sure I’ll be revisiting the whole album too often.

Who would enjoy it? I think this is a great pick for people who don’t really want anything too experimental but still want a break from the more R&B/hip hop influenced pop music on the charts right now. If you’re a fan of Shania Twain or Maren Morris, she’s definitely worth checking out if you haven’t already.

My reviews of Kelsea’s first two albums:

The First Time

Unapologetically (Deluxe Edition)

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