Album Review: Kelsea Ballerini – ‘Subject to Change’

I’ll say it: Kelsea Ballerini hasn’t gotten enough credit in mainstream country music. Yeah, she debuted with singles like “Love Me Like You Mean It” and “Yeah Boy” that were pretty juvenile and clunky, but she’s slowly taken steps over the years toward a more mature sound and writing approach, evidenced by great overlooked singles such as “Peter Pan,” “homecoming queen?,” and “half of my hometown”; heck, with “hole in the bottle,” even her fun songs have gotten better!

I think it’s what made her self-titled 2020 effort pretty disappointing to see, then – even if most of those tracks I just mentioned stemmed from it – a pivot toward a more quirky, personal lyrical style that just couldn’t find a consistent footing in its sound and felt clumsy overall. And oh yeah, it dropped in March of that year; ouch. Granted, she dropped a remixed version of the same album later that year that was much better, and again, the right singles were promoted from that album. So maybe it just took that awkward first step to find the right balance …

… which she absolutely found with Subject to Change, even if this time around she traded lowercase song titles in favor of the caps lock approach. Kidding aside, though, this is the sort of measurably strong improvement I’ve been hoping to see from her for years now, doubling down on nearly all of her strengths and eschewing most of the elements that held her back from true greatness. And I love that part of that expansion includes sporting more neotraditional pivots in the vein of “hole in the bottle,” because with her knack for sticky melodic compositions and great hooks, there’s even more found here. And it also helps that they play into decidedly sillier territory while still being a bit more overall mature, like the fun fiddle rollick anchoring “I Can’t Help Myself” alongside the jaunty backing vocals, or the surprisingly grounded, warmer fiddle and bass interplay driving “If You Go Down (I’m Goin’ Down Too)” – a track, ironically enough, about friendship and how far she’ll go to prove that loyalty.

And that’s why I think there’s a more unique voice present here, too, because she knows she’s not a hell-raiser, so it’s all about wild hypothetical situations that can still manage to temper that silliness with just enough of a hint of a wilder edge. Oh, and there’s an anti-hookup-themed collaboration with Carly Pearce and Kelly Clarkson toward the end called “You’re Drunk, Go Home” that’s just a jaunty-as-hell barroom stomper; really, between every track I just mentioned, she kind of runs with a lot of Shania Twain comparisons … and earns them.

Of course, this is also a decidedly modern pop-country project in spirit, just thankfully without the production flubs of her last project, meaning it still plays overall well to her strengths and is fairly organic, to boot. From the sandy, pronounced electric melodic groove riding alongside an equally good bass groove on “The Little Things,” the spare restraint and warmth offered on cuts like “Love is a Cowboy” and “What I Have,” and the jangly, liquid sheen of cuts like “Weather” and “Heartfirst,” there’s just a lot of terrific hooks and compositional details present here. Still not quite as consistent as it could be, though – between the choppy mixing and more robotic vocal production on “I Guess They Call It Fallin” and the overdone synthetic backing vocals on “Muscle Memory,” plus some occasional overmixed percussion, there’s still some of those sharper pop pivots that don’t quite work.

Thankfully, though, the other improvement comes through greatly in the writing and themes. Ballerini has always had a streak of sharper insight to her writing go unnoticed by most, and I’d argue there’s an emotional intelligence within it here that really shines. Sometimes it’s still a bit quirky or muted for its own good – “Doin’ My Best” is … a lot, detailing anxieties over that last album and the past few years in general, and yet feels oddly rushed and low-key, too. It feels intentional, mind you, but also weirdly hollow in a way that feels lacking in greater impact. But when she’s willing to lay out all of her baggage at the forefront and get more personal than most of her contemporaries, it makes a closer built on thankfulness in “What I Have” feel more genuine than built on platitudes.

Even the flightier, more indecisive framing feels a bit more intentional and well-grounded this time around, if only for leaning into it all as a feature more than a flaw. She’s going to jump in “Heartfirst” and give love another shot, and she’s “Subject to Change” but learning how to work through it and see it as a part of herself. And hell, she herself can admit sometimes she’s a mess and still trying to figure it all out on “I Can’t Help Myself.” And again, balanced alongside moments like that, this is also an album that can ultimately have fun with itself. There are, admittedly, a few trite moments like “Universe” and “Walk in the Park” that feel like they get overshadowed here by better tracks. But I don’t know … alongside easily being her best project to date, this just might be genuinely great – here’s to hoping it doesn’t go overlooked.

  • Favorite tracks: “Subject to Change,” “The Little Things,” “I Can’t Help Myself,” “If You Go Down (I’m Goin’ Down Too),”  “Weather,” “Heartfirst,” “You’re Drunk, Go Home” (w/ Carly Pearce and Kelly Clarkson), “What I Have”
  • Least favorite track: “Universe”

Buy or stream the album.

2 thoughts on “Album Review: Kelsea Ballerini – ‘Subject to Change’

  1. I necessarily wouldn’t call Peter Pan an overlooked single. It is her highest charting single on Billboard hot 100 as well as the first song by a female to top billboard country songs and airplay charts (this also happened at the same time). I think you may have meant I Hate Love Songs.

    Liked by 1 person

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