Sunday, September 25, 2022

Review: Subject to Change • Kelsea Ballerini

When Kelsea Ballerini began writing country music as a teenager, she didn’t have any country music reference points. “I grew up on Top 40 pop. I didn’t know what country music was,” she told an interviewer while promoting an underwhelming builder-grade debut album in 2015. That’s certainly not the case today: Now 29, Ballerini is a fixture in the young country scene, residing somewhere between streaming heavyweights who have sidestepped CMT and the legacy country bros that dominate radio airplay. Her fourth studio record is dedicated to a simpler time in country music – when pop production had barely intruded and hip-hop artists wouldn’t be caught dead doing the Boot Scootin’ Boogie – but is indebted to a disorienting shift in her personal definition of normality.

Across Subject to Change, Ballerini traces steps toward news that would ultimately break a few weeks before this album’s release: She and her husband of five years have called it quits. It's an important context to a record that is in flux – she compares herself to weather patterns at least four times – and equally laden in words of love, resentment, and false hope: On “Love is a Cowboy,” she employs some trite imagery of charging horses and the wild west to craft an otherwise windswept number. But by the end of the record, the cowboy rode right out of town: “Therapy for one turned into therapy for two. When you get married that young, you got a lotta shit you got to get through,” she sings on “Doin’ My Best,” a causal reflection of the past few years.

Ballerini is certainly competent in wit – “If I’m Going Down (I’m Going Down Too)” and “You’re Drunk, Go Home” embrace bluegrass and honky-tonk, respectively, with some exaggerated storytelling – but is even more skilled in conveying sincerity. Songs with staying power here are the ones that rekindle a fire (“Muscle Memory”) or suspend her marriage in its brightest moments (“Heartfirst,” “The Little Things”), where the hooks are strongest and snappiest to distract from Ballerini’s affinity for the ordinary, like the obsessive parallels between herself and cold fronts or the borrowed likeness of Marilyn Monroe. While her musical foundation may not have been in country music, she has built an admirable home in that world anyway with a toolbox of strong melodies and songwriting that, while sometimes fringing banality when she’s not careful, feels sincere in its acceptance that life is, has, and always will be in constant motion.

Subject to Change is available now under Black River Entertainment.

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