It’s very rare for me to start writing an album review after just one listen. This is one of those occasions, and I’m thoroughly enjoying the second run-through right now. Kelsea Ballerini is back with her third album; no doubt one of the most-anticipated mainstream country releases of the year. It’ll probably determine Kelsea’s appeal in the wider pop market, too, and judging by the overall vibe of the album, that’s certainly something her promo team will be trying to capitalize on. This is an album that transcends genres even further than her sophomore project, and could open up a whole new audience for her. It’s creative, brave and vulnerable in equal measure – Kelsea’s most ambitious piece of work to date.
Kicking off the album, ‘overshare’ encapsulates Kelsea’s self-deprecating humour better than ever before. With its bouncy melody and unapologetically humorous lyrics, it’s bound to become a huge fan favourite and showcases a very human, down-to-earth side to her personality that listeners will find incredibly endearing. It’s a sign of an artist very comfortable in her own skin, flaws included.
“I overshare, because I over-care
About the person over there, who’s completely unaware that
I overthink, then I overdrink to overcompensate
Yeah, I know, there’s moments that I’m missin’
If I’d just shut up and listen
But silence makes me scared
So then I overshare”
It sets the tone for a very personal, introspective collection. ‘club’ follows; a very trendy-sounding mergence of acoustic instruments with edgy, EDM-influenced production, with lyrics spelling out a ‘stay at home’ mentality, and a reluctance to somewhat go through the motions of a typical night out, “watching everybody around me trying to hook up and say stuff they don’t mean”. It’s the big anthem on the record, and may be an effective promotional tool when it comes to targeting a mainstream global audience.
Speaking of which, her duet with Halsey on ‘the other girl’ could be a huge genre-blurring hit. It’s an intriguing take on the familiar ‘cheating’ scenario, with alternating vocals from two females questioning who’s actually “the other girl”. Such a clever idea for a duet, and super catchy too. It screams a Taylor Swift influence, and the depth of the production is stunning (co-produced by Kelsea herself, alongside Jimmy Robbins). ‘Bragger’ will also be a big talking point for country reviewers and fans alike, and it sees Kelsea pushing the barrier even further than on the likes of ‘Miss Me More’. It’s a funky chunk of sass; an outpouring of love for her other half (I’m sure Mr Evans appreciates it!) and adds a really different, attitude-filled moment on an otherwise personal album.
But don’t let the poppier elements take away the attention from the more traditional moments on the album. ‘Hole In The Bottle’ showcases some playful lyricism and soem killer Paisley-esque electric guitar that gives it a real throwback honky-tonk vibe, albeit with a hint of pop in the production. ‘Country Song’ dives straight into Kelsea’s country soul, exploring how she instinctively turns to country writing in her time of need, with some lovely pedal steel in the background. And ‘homecoming queen’ needs no introduction; one of Kelsea’s very best singles to date, and just about as vulnerable as it gets.
And I’m just going to put it out there – ‘half of my hometown’, featuring the one and only Kenny Chesney, is the best mainstream country song of 2020 so far, and will still be right up there come the end of the year. It’s a HUGE country radio hit in waiting – soulful, hearty country music at its absolute finest, and having Kenny Chesney providing the harmonies just doesn’t get any better. It tells the story of how half of her fellow Knoxville natives got out of town to live their dreams, whilst the other half settled for a quieter life at home. Kelsea at her very best, reminding us all of her sublime songwriting ability. It’s also no surprise to see that the listed co-writers are Shane McAnally, Ross Copperman, Nicole Galyon and Jimmy Robbins – that’s a dream team right there.
The topic of a torn mind, being at a crossroads in life, features at various points on the album. The aforementioned ‘club’ sees Kelsea struggling with a wilder lifestyle, ‘…hometown’ reflects on friends back home with conflicting thoughts on where life is heading, and the final track, ‘la’, also touches on those internal mental battles. ‘la’ is a particularly interesting one, especially the line:
“But if I let down my hair in the ocean air
Will Tennessee be mad at me?”
Does that refer to the restrictions imposed on country artists by country fans, who often become alienated when artists push creative boundaries? It’s up for interpretation, but I think it’s a sign that Kelsea is trying to strike a balance between opening up the pop world whilst keeping country fans on side, and she’s certainly been successful in that regard so far.
Kelsea’s self-titled album continues the evolution of one of country music’s brightest young talents, exposing the immense quality of songwriting from a group of Nashville’s very best, and packed full of forward-thinking, genre-blending offerings. Certainly her bravest album to date, it’s also her most impressive, complete album so far from front to back. It does beg the question though, at what point do we put Kelsea into the Taylor mould? She isn’t far away production-wise, but as long as the quality remains this high, she can do whatever she likes.