By Jayleen Rolon
Country-pop singer Kelsea Ballerini released her fourth studio album on Friday, “SUBJECT TO CHANGE,” which explores themes of change inspired by the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic and her recent separation from estranged husband Morgan Evans.
Ballerini had immediate success with her debut album singles “Love Me Like You Mean It,” “Dibs” and “Peter Pan.” All three singles topped the Billboard Country Airplay chart after their respective releases, a feat unaccomplished by any female country artist since Wynnonna Judd in 1992. Ballerini’s success also earned her a Grammy award nomination for Best New Artist in 2017, as well as a spot coaching on season 15 of “The Voice.”
The tracklist of “SUBJECT TO CHANGE” is unpredictable from one song to the next. Listeners go on a journey from the catchy, upbeat “HEARTFIRST” about taking the risk of a one night stand to the funny critique of unwanted attention at the bar “YOU’RE DRUNK, GO HOME.” This humorous track made in collaboration with Kelly Clarkson and Carly Pearce is quickly followed up with the uplifting and mature “DOIN. MY BEST.” While these shifts feel like whiplash at times, they reinforce the idea that change can be unexpected but welcomed.
Several songs within the album explore the ups and downs of relationships. One example is “LOVE IS A COWBOY,” one of the more country genre-inspired songs on the album, with emphasis placed on sharp instrumental and soft harmonies. Ballerini uses the metaphor, a staple of her songwriting, to describe how love can make you feel many different emotions at the same time. “It makes your heart feel like wild horses in your chest / Trying to catch it's like tryna tame a wild, wild west / It's reckless and rugged, it's sweet and it's stubborn,” sings Ballerini in the final chorus.
Songs like “WALK IN THE PARK” embrace change. This soft, melodious track highlights the multidimensionality and unpredictability of an emotional person by herself to shifts in weather, a theme present throughout the project. However, unlike other songs that treat these traits as flaws, Ballerini acknowledges her complexity both as a difficulty to manage but also as something separates herself from others. “Search the whole world around for the steadier kind, who you can rеad all of her mind / Loving me is no easy breezе but, don't miss the forest through the trees,” sings Ballerini in the second verse, an empowering challenge to the negative connotations associated with mental health struggles.
Ballerini is sure to throw in a few wild cards to keep listeners on their toes, such as “MARILYN.” Similar to “Peter Pan,” Ballerini uses a cultural icon as a catalyst for analyzing a specific topic, in this case fame and its effect on mental health. This track comes as a sucker punch to the heart amidst lighter themes in other parts of the album and as a powerful commentary on Marilyn Monroe’s battle with drug addiction. The song ends with an audio clip of the actress struggling to answer the question “do you feel happy in life?” The outro is especially powerful after gut wrenching lyrics such as “Did you miss Norma Jeane? The woman underneath / Or did you always wanna be Marilyn?”
In “SUBJECT TO CHANGE,” Ballerini takes the opportunity to explore more mature themes and sounds that reflect her growth as a person and an artist in recent years. From the occasional expletive to brutal honesty about sex, nightlife and the toll of fame, Ballerini challenges the youthful innocence often associated with female country artists.
"I think in that unraveling of all these beautiful, amazing experiences that I had gotten to have over the years in my career and my personal life ... it really unlocked this honesty and more so than the honesty, the guts to go there in some ways. And I think that's heard throughout the whole project," Ballerini told PEOPLE.
A perfect example of this newfound honesty and maturity is in the song “I CAN’T HELP MYSELF,” a jazzy upbeat song about the temptations of partying. Similar to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” Ballerini paints a picture of a lively girls night out despite all of the socially acceptable options to spend her night. “'Cause when the sun starts falling, the girls start calling / The wine comes off of the shelf / Then the drums start to kick in and all my inhibitions / Are gone by a quarter to twelve,” the chorus rings out. It is refreshing to see a female country artist unapologetically indulge in taboo activities for fun’s sake.
As someone who has appreciated Ballerini’s music since 2015, this maturity — while shocking — makes me feel as if I have grown up alongside the artist as opposed to growing out of her style. I would have been disappointed to hear music I enjoyed at 12 years old repeated as I approached the beginning of my 20s.
“SUBJECT TO CHANGE” is like a buffet — there’s bound to be something included that suits your taste. As a 29 year old woman, Ballerini lays out some of the lessons she’s learned throughout her 20s in new, exciting ways. So whether you’re looking for a love song with metaphors to the weather or a song to sing along to with your best friend about the endless secrets between the two of you, you’ll find it and more in this album.