Originally written and published by me for PopMatters.
When country singer Kelsea Ballerini achieved crossover success with her Chainsmokers collaboration “This Feeling” in 2018, it allowed her breakthrough into the pop music stratosphere where she soon began a trajectory similar to that of Shania Twain or Kacey Musgraves. With her career coming of age in a time where distinguishing between genres mattered less than generating streams. Other country artists like Maren Morris followed suit in the years to come with this new type of crossover single, which was less crossover and more collaboration: who cares what genre of music you make as long as we can get together and make a genuinely good song?
Ballerini appeared committed to fulfilling this new type of country pop star for the Spotify generation with her eponymous third studio album Kelsea, which she described as encapsulating both her country and pop aspirations, aided by collaborations with both Halsey and Kenny Chesney. But the album arrived the week that most parts of the world were closing up shop due to COVID-19, and as a result it didn’t quite generate the type of response anyone was expecting from it. Two years later, the singer has returned with her fourth LP Subject to Change, a title which Ballerini penned as capturing her feelings towards embracing change for its positive attributes. But ironically, little has changed in the singer’s material: if anything, it’s moved backward as bland and certainly her most conservative work yet.
With her first and second albums The First Time and Unapologetically, Ballerini received songwriting credit on each and every track. Kelsea, for what was at once described as her most personal work, received surprisingly little writing contribution from the singer. While she has long described her influences as coming everywhere from Britney Spears to Keith Urban, it might not be too far-fetched to suggest that Ballerini is just more of a country singer than pop. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t bait us with a picture-perfect country pop song as Subject to Change’s lead single, “Heartfirst,” which appeared to promise another genre-bending, boundary-pushing record as a follow-up to Kelsea. But that couldn’t be farther from the case.
Ballerini’s vocals have indeed never been stronger than they are on Subject to Change. While the lyrics and life lessons within each track leave a lot to be desired, the singer is in her element musically. It’s just unfortunate that the element in question is more old-fashioned country that doesn’t push any buttons (for the most part). Whether she’s learning the power that the little things in life hold or cooing that love is like the image of a cowboy, buying into the blissful innocence these songs promote is a form of escapism—especially since, in the midst of releasing an album full of grateful, lighthearted songs about love and life, Ballerini announced a divorce from fellow country singer Morgan Evans.
The album’s biggest blunder is, however, in the midst of declaring how she is “doin’ her best” since “2020 was a weird year / Album dropped at a weird time,” Ballerini takes cheap shots at a certain other pop star whom she put on track 4 of her previous LP: “Wish I could take it back, I would’ve never asked / If I knew we wouldn’t talk anymore.” Media immediately descended around this supposed falling-out between Ballerini and Halsey, conjuring bad memories of the last time a country singer called out a pop star in a hit song—but Taylor Swift and Katy Perry have since mended fences, I think. In a digital age where it’s still shockingly easy to be misogynistic, famous women calling each other out in their pop songs reads now as dated and adding unnecessary fuel to the fire (read: Twitter). Subject to Change is sonically well-crafted, but its intentions suggest that growth and change are still somewhere else on the horizon.
Jeffrey’s favorites from Subject to Change: “Subject to Change,” “The Little Things,” “Love is a Cowboy,” “Muscle Memory,” and “Heartfirst”