Ballerini’s latest leans into her strength as a writer, and builds upon her previous works in a welcome fashion.
Subject to Change is country singer-songwriter Kelsea Ballerini’s fourth album, and likely her best yet. It follows 2020’s kelsea, which was too often bogged down by clichés with tracks titled “Half of My Hometown,” “A Country Song,” and “LA,” and hooks like “I don’t wanna go to the club” and “Even the homecoming queen cries.” The highlights of kelsea were the songs that, rather than repackaging social tropes into generic country ballads, examined her personal relationships and weren’t afraid to be uptempo and unabashedly fun even as she confessed her flaws. Subject to Change thankfully leans further into Ballerini’s strengths as a writer, with lyrical themes of romance, understanding herself, and appreciating the little things in life.
Ballerini has an ear for catchy, radio-ready hooks, and this album is not shy about dancing on the line between pop and country in support of that style. “Heartfirst” is the best of the bunch, at its core a fluttering pop song about embracing the unpredictability of a crush that happens to be dressed up in country drapes. Her vocals are delicate, the production is warm but not overdone, and the writing is memorable all the way from verse to chorus. It’s a song that’s prepared for everything to fall apart (“my head is yelling that I could get hurt”), yet makes the pursuit of happiness in all its uncertainty sound sweet anyway. Songs like “Muscle Memory” and “I Guess They Call It Fallin’” have similarly breezy hooks; whereas for “The Little Things,” the affectionate invocation of romantic tropes, conversational interplay between vocals and guitar, and exact level of twang jointly scream Fearless-era Taylor.
A few tracks do lean further into country conventions: “You’re Drunk, Go Home” really needs no explanation beyond its title, while “If You Go Down (I’m Goin’ Down Too)” is a playful ode to friendship featuring some classic hypothetical murder, and wistful ballad “Love Is a Cowboy” works the same way on its album as Kacey Musgraves’ “Space Cowboy” did on Golden Hour. There are a few other ballads (“Marilyn,” “What I Have”), but they’re not as interesting compared to the project’s sweet spot of light mid-tempo tracks.Sometimes it’s hard to argue for music that’s nice — pleasant country-pop tunes don’t always inspire feverish devotion when they have all the strength of a spring breeze — but Subject to Change nails that style well enough to be memorable regardless. Ballerini’s lyrics build everyday experiences and emotions up into pastel-colored sets wherein the exploration of her doubts and values feels honest, but her landing is softened with just a touch of imagination should she fall. (Maybe call it fractured fairytale music?) Ultimately, that’s what makes this record dance on the line between country and pop: it’s earnest personal storytelling placed beneath a hopeful, larger-than-life lens.