Country music has struggled to find its footing in the streaming era. It’s a painful truth, but in recent years the genre’s biggest hits are either yearning ballads courtesy of Luke Combs or hip-hop-influenced uptempo tracks like Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Backroad.” There hasn’t been a significant country-pop crossover artist since Taylor Swift made her genre switch official with the 1989 album. Since then, the industry has been searching for the next Taylor Swift. Despite her valiant and valid attempts to carve out her own musical identity, Kelsea Ballerini has always been the main name thrown around in this conversation.
On her eponymous third studio album, Kelsea attempts to strike a balance between ruralism and city life, in a geographical and musical sense, but the lack of variety in the album’s production hinders its full potential. The album’s strongest moments are when she leans into the melancholy of post-teenage/young adult years. Two of the album’s standout tracks are “club” and “half of my hometown.” The former is what one would imagine a country song by Lorde would sound like. The track sees Kelsea outlining all of the less-than-glamorous aspects of club life (“I don’t wanna watch everybody around me tryna hook up/And say stuff they don’t mean/And get drunk and get cheap”) while tackling the anxiety that comes with existing outside of the norm. The latter, “half of my hometown,” a collaboration with Kenny Chesney, covers the yearning to leave your hometown and expand your worldview, but it also explores the conflict of appreciating your hometown more the further you get from it. These two songs are the main examples of the Kelsea’s exploration of the “rural vs. urban” tension. This push and pull also comes to a head with the production on “bragger,” a funky country-pop track that has a lot of crossover potential with the right remix, and “overshare,” another catchy country-pop track that has strikingly memorable melody (thank you, Tayla Parx!).
Kelsea falters on two fronts: 1) oftentimes the lyricism is very plain and sometimes nonsensical and 2) the one-note production makes much of the album fall flat. For example, “love and hate” has nice instrumentation, but the lyrics are very silly; there is not “a thin line between love and hate,” in fact, it’s a very thick line. “A country song” tries to insert itself into the vast lexicon of country songs about country music, but the lyrics feel more like a list of disjointed country music elements as opposed to one cohesive narrative. Likewise, “la” is a very weak closer, but at least it serves as an addition to the lyrical motif of geographical tension on the album. In terms of production, aside from “bragger,” the majority of kelsea relies on your typical guitar, drum, piano, and bass. The downside to this instrumental homogeneity is that the sound gets boring quickly, especially because Kelsea seems to be holding herself back vocally. The ballads are strong, but what should be big emotional belting moments feel stifled by a less interesting and more subdued vocal take.
Despite some of its drawbacks, the album is sold. This isn’t an outstanding album, but it displays Kelsea’s growth in terms of crafting conceptual albums. All she needs to do is to branch out to more collaborators that will push her musically because, at times, she seems to be stuck in a rut. Country music is fertile ground for concept albums, and Kelsea has made some serious progress with this latest batch of songs.
Key Tracks: “bragger”; “club”; “overshare”; “half of my hometown”; “love me like a girl”