Archives: Kelsea Ballerini ‘The First Time’ – Album Review
This article was first published on May 18th, 2015 on forthecountryrecord.com.
Those who have only heard Kelsea Ballerini’s debut single ‘Love Me Like You Mean It’ blasting out of their radios in all its semi-electro country-pop goodness, may have underestimated the singer/songwriter for being another cutesy, Disneyfied “country” diva, appealing to youth and not knowing too much about twang. I wasn’t sure, at first; certainly the single is extremely catchy and Kelsea looks the part, blonde, 21 years old and all smiles and hearts. The self-titled EP, too, stayed safely within the boundaries of female teen-orientated songs about young love (and one about heartbreak), using the kind of “hip”, urbanized language that is age-appropriate.
“I’m callin’ dibs,” she exclaims cockily on one track in a cute, fresh way of staking her claim to a prospective boyfriend. “Yeah boy, I’m diggin’ what you’re doing, yeah boy, I’m try’na keep it cool,” she sings to her blue jean and ball cap-clad crush on another. For the most part the EP kept things cheery, upbeat and surface, unveiling an endearing personality and enjoyable melodies. Even within that, however, Kelsea revealed that there was more to her songwriting ability than sweet tales of first love and infatuation. ‘The First Time’, later taken to be the title track of her debut album, turns to a clearly very real heartbreak and explores the pain of an ex continuing to exploit and manipulate her still-existent feelings. In a swirl of piano, strings, reverb and sparse beats, her solo writing credit and emotional performance make it clear not only that this comes from a real place, but also that she knows how to connect when it counts.
And she proves that even further as she advances from an all-smiles EP to an album that exhibits real depth. ‘Secondhand Smoke’, my favorite track on the album, shows Kelsea’s strongest lyrical effort thus far with a narrative about a broken home and her worry about not being able to break the habit in her own life and relationships. This goes beyond the usual sentimental storyline that the young victims of divorced parents tend to churn out (a la feel sorry for me), and instead considers the impact that this has had on her own decisions, the template this may have made for her life and her wish to climb out of it. That shows a great deal more maturity than many of her peers and a depth rarely reached in this kind of narrative (one which is personal to me).
She seeks to do something similar in ‘Underage’, although doesn’t quite reach the Kacey Musgraves level of social commentary that I was hoping for. Speaking to her own generation and the reckless nature of teenagers desperately trying to grow up too fast, it draws the attention away from celebrating good times and chooses to focus on the notion of them perhaps being too young to be doing all the things they are. “All we ever wanna be is 21… revolves around athletic boys and girls, dressed up in their older sister’s clothes, R Kelly on the radio, screaming out ‘this’ll never get old’,” she sings with a hint of sadness and a sense of detachment. “Kissing strangers, daring danger… you don’t think to take it slow, and you don’t know what you don’t know, the nights are young and our IDs are fake, underage.” Throughout the song she pushes at the boundary between celebration and warning, switching pronouns regularly so never quite allowing it to become her own narrative, standing as a caution. I did feel she could have pushed it into a new arena, revealing the emotional damage that naiveté and recklessness can have years later, drawing in references to the media and pop culture that encourage kids to grow up too fast, but it still serves as a fascinating insight into her unique angle on things.
This is where Kelsea truly shines as an artist and songwriter. Time and again she shows her ability to take standard subject matters and give her own original take on it, from the wordplay of ‘XO’ (“you’re still in love with your ex… oh”), to the metaphor of ‘Peter Pan’ (a variation of the “ramblin’ man” narrative, skewed younger), and the imagery of ‘Stilettos’ (a power ballad about putting on a brave face, “I wear my pain like stilettos”). Even ‘Square Pegs’, a song about being who you want to be, chasing your dreams and doing what makes you happy, manages to be charming and un-clichéd. Think of it as the youth-friendly version of Kacey Musgraves’ ‘Follow Your Arrow’, or even as a counterpart to Maddie & Tae’s current single ‘Fly’, with the focus being on individuality rather than striving for something.
Kelsea Ballerini is much more than a Teen Pop Queen. She has something to say, a clear talent and a penchant for incredibly catchy and addictive melodies to boot. Sure, this album is stood tall at the pop end of the country spectrum, and much of the production opts for light synths and drum loops, but there is no obvious auto-tune, extensive amounts of rapping, moronic lyricism about partying and getting drunk or overbearing levels of sap. I do feel that including all of the songs from the EP meant that tracks like the clever and witty ‘Mother-In-Law’ didn’t make the cut and the record suffers slightly as a result, but overall this is a strong debut from someone who many will have underestimated, or seen as a copycat of an already-established star. What Kelsea Ballerini has done on ‘The First Time’ is let people know that she’s driving her own niche and identifiable style, and that is how female country stars are made.