Kelsea Ballerini is “SUBJECT TO CHANGE”
Issue 3, Volume 113
Kelsea Ballerini is a force to be reckoned with. At 29, she is well on her way to country-pop queendom with a dozen hit songs, two Grammy nominations, and a repertoire of star-studded collaborations. Hits like “Peter Pan” (2015), “Miss Me More” (2018), and “homecoming queen?” (2020) have earned her a place as country music’s sweetheart with her authentic songwriting, lyrical genius, and sonic versatility. Her newest album, “SUBJECT TO CHANGE,” finds the Nashville singer at a turning point in her life, enduring the heartbreak of her divorce and mastering the art of self-forgiveness.
“SUBJECT TO CHANGE” is deceptively optimistic and shallow on the first listen, but upon closer inspection, tinged with an undeniable sadness. Ballerini copes with the devastation of her divorce by joking about needing therapy and the complexities of conditional love, but her lightheartedness feels almost intentionally forced. While looking past Ballerini’s jovial facade, it is evident that divorce is her worst nightmare—a nightmare she even anticipated on her debut album “The First Time” (2015). In “Secondhand Smoke,” Ballerini reflects on her parents’ divorce, revealing her tenuous hope to “be the one to shake the habit.” “SUBJECT TO CHANGE” sees her standing in the ashes of the aftermath of her worst fear, breathing in the smoke with bravery and poise.
Despite its initially generic-seeming description, the album is anything but a typical heartbreak record. In an interview with Apple Music, Ballerini explained that “the theme was change and evolution and growing up.” These overarching messages are present in every track, as Ballerini explores subjects from her metamorphosis during the pandemic to the agency she demonstrates over her own life. From the contemplative title track to the pulsating, bass-driven pessimism of “I GUESS THEY CALL IT FALLING,” Ballerini paints a nuanced, flawed self-portrait, and finds balance in her chaotic existence.
These themes are introduced in the predictable yet charming title track, which pales in comparison to the second: “THE LITTLE THINGS.” It’s a classic Ballerinibanger, punctuated with country twang, wide-eyed romanticism, and small-town imagery. The song is grounded by drumming and clap-beat percussion, but its plucky banjo and electric guitar melodies elevate it from classic country to a sound that is distinctly Ballerini’s. The chorus is contagious and playful, a perfect example of Ballerini’s lyrical mastery. She croons, “It’s when we’re in a crowded room, put your hand on my back / And waiting on me in the morning with my coffee black,” making the melodious notes sound effortless.
The sixth track, “MUSCLE MEMORY,” is another highlight of the album. Ballerini’s soaring vocals emulate a “1989” (2014)-era Taylor Swift. Her voice is smooth like honey as she sings about reigniting an old flame while he is back in town, yet has an edge and sharpness that reflects the state of her life in the midst of a plethora of changes. Evocative of Camila Cabello’s “All These Years” (2018), the song is both a pop goldmine and distinctly Nashville country. A hammering bass backbeat and intoxicating electric guitar bring the same magnetism and intrigue as Ballerini’s mysterious ex. The song is a lyrical highlight of the album as Ballerini sings the cleverly crafted words, “I can pick you out of a lineup, baby, even with my eyes closed,” to an irresistible rhythm.
Despite its hits, “SUBJECT TO CHANGE” has its fair share of misses. Songs like “WEATHER” and “WALK IN THE PARK” exhaust every meteorology metaphor in existence, failing to use symbolic imagery effectively. In “WALK IN THE PARK,” Ballerini sings, “Sometimes I’m a summer day, sometimes I start raining / Always one season away from everything changing,” causing the lyrics to come off as amateur despite the song’s winning chorus and refrains. Surprisingly, the ballads of the album lack Ballerini’s signature sparkle, with records like “LOVE IS A COWBOY” and “UNIVERSE” falling flat. The last three tracks on the album are centered entirely around the seductive illusion of fame, echoing Ballerini’s personal struggles with her mental health in a way that comes off as performative. This insincerity is evident on the 13th track, “DOIN’ MY BEST,” when Ballerini disses Halsey, singing that she regrets collaborating with her on “the other girl” because they are no longer on speaking terms. Even on “YOU’RE DRUNK, GO HOME,” Ballerini’s powerful collaboration with country icons Kelly Clarkson and Carly Pearce does little to redeem the lyrical and thematic clumsiness of the bulk of the album.
Most disappointingly, the album is predictable and repetitive at times; the gentle guitar strumming, twangy banjo, overused clap tracks, and chiming electric guitar solos blend the songs together. The more upbeat songs on the album are infused with contagious bass beats, but the slower ballads lack sonic complexity and have a grainy acoustic sound. The lackluster production of “SUBJECT TO CHANGE” feels like a defense mechanism, with the superficially bright major chords distracting from the aching lyrics. With a sound similar to her previous albums, Ballerini disguises her sadness with the sounds that characterized the naivety of her youth.
That being said, the magic of “SUBJECT TO CHANGE” comes not from its production, but Ballerini’s impressive vocals, which brilliantly fuse vulnerability and strength. Our starry-eyed Knoxville heroine has been disappointed one too many times, and decides to make the music she wants without confining herself to anyone’s expectations. The album is her way of picking up the pieces of her life, surrounding herself with what matters to her, and healing from her past. Ballerini herself describes “DOIN’ MY BEST” as “the celebration of taking ownership of cringe,” a statement that rings true for much of the album; it is honest, unapologetic, and contains both flickers of undeniable beauty and emotional “word vomit.” It may not be perfect, but as Ballerini is learning and recuperating, perfection is not the goal.