Black River Entertainment
Release Date: September 23rd 2022
Reviewed by: Jonathan Andre
- SUBJECT TO CHANGE
- THE LITTLE THINGS
- I CAN’T HELP MYSELF
- IF YOU GO DOWN (I’M GOIN’ DOWN TOO)
- LOVE IS A COWBOY
- MUSCLE MEMORY
- I GUESS THEY CALL IT FALLIN’
- WALK IN THE PARK
- YOU’RE DRUNK, GO HOME (feat. Kelly Clarkson & Carly Pearce)
- DOIN’ MY BEST
- WHAT I HAVE
I don’t know that much about Kelsea Ballerini. I mean, lemme just rephrase that statement. I do know of her, and I know her songs a little bit, but considering that all of the reviews that we as a site wrote about her, was actually written by my brother, it begs to assume that it would’ve been Josh who was writing this review, because he’d be the most ‘qualified’ to write this, right? That’d be true, and yet, I find myself writing this review, just on the basis, that this album has resonated with me, just like many country albums have resonated with me as this year has gone by. Sure, I may not know as much as Kelsea as the next guy, or even know as much as my brother, but I do know that she’s a rising star at the moment, that, in my opinion, she’s the equivalent now, of what Shania Twain was in the 1990s and the 2000s…and that is a big bold statement, me saying that. Kelsea’s music has always been somewhat on the down-low ever since her 2015 debut, and steadily over the years, she’s released album after album, plugging away at delivering songs that have seemingly redefined what it means to be a country musician in the 2020s.
Along with other ‘trailblazer’ female artists/bands/duos of today (Tenille Townes, Tenille Arts, Maren Morris, Lauren Alania, Maddie & Tae, Mickey Guyton, Hailey Whitters, Carly Pearce, Ingrid Andress, Cassadee Pope, Priscilla Block, Gabby Barrett, Lindsay Ell and Jessie James Decker, to name a few); Kelsea has led the way, to remind us all that country music is still a female-fronted industry, as much as country radio tries to show us otherwise. Back in the 1990s, there were tons of female country artists that were taking the genre by storm, from Martina McBride, Shania Twain, Faith Hill, LeeAnn Rimes and LeeAnn Womack, to Terri Clark, SheDAISY, The Chicks, Wynonna Judd, Trisha Yearwood, Jo Dee Messina, and Sara Evans; even seasoned veterans like Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire were both in and amongst the hits in the 1990s decade. Now fast-forward to the 2020s (and the recently completed 2010s), and we can see that the trend for female country artists are now on the rise again, and that is a very good thing indeed.
Kelsea most recently unveiled Kelsea and Ballerini back in 2020 (Ballerini was Kelsea re-done, acoustically), and while that album in particular placed Kelsea on the map with much more international renown, that album in particular was her worst-performing, primarily due to COVID-19 and its effects on live music. So now, two years later, we can see across all music, the hunger in people’s eyes as they want to release new music and get back to live touring again- Kelsea Ballerini included. Hence the unveiling of Kelsea’s new album SUBJECT TO CHANGE. Unveiled at the end of September 2022; this 15-track album is one of 2022’s best, rivalling other country albums like Miranda Lambert’s Palomino, Hailey Whitters’s Raised, Tenille Townes’s Masquerades, and the most recently unveiled Lainey Wilson album Bell Bottom Country. Totalling 15 tracks (and with just one collaboration, with Kelly Clarkson and Carly Pearce), this is by far Kelsea’s most personal yet, unveiled at such a time in her life, where her personal life is now currently under a microscope: in the midst of her unveiling this album over the past few months, she started to undergo a very public divorce with singer-songwriter Morgan Evans. The particulars of said divorce are not publicly known, but what is known, is that it seems a little dichotomous and at times cringe and seemingly ‘fake’, for Kelsea to sing about love in a lot of her songs on SUBJECT TO CHANGE, especially when she’s going through something that almost embodies the exact opposite. Alas, the themes on this brand-new album are bouncy, jovial, happy, and earnestly believing the best about love, which seems a little incongruent with her own private life. And the beauty of experiencing life in real time (and us as fans and listeners of her music experiencing it alongside her) is that more often than not, what is expressed through song is wildly different to what is lived out by the artist. This is one of those circumstances. And that’s ok.
Just because the themes sung about in SUBJECT TO CHANGE don’t seem to mirror the personal life of Kelsea right now, doesn’t invalidate her personal experience, nor does it make these songs any less poignant, heartfelt, or even true. Singing about love, hope, joy, camaraderie, gratefulness and striving to be better in life, are all good things to aspire towards and sing about, and just because things aren’t being mirrored in your own life, doesn’t mean that someday in the future, it can be. Divorce sucks, and I’m sure no one wants it to happen in their own lives. But just because it has happened in someone’s life, doesn’t make the songs like ‘Love is a Cowboy’, ‘What I Have’, and ‘The Little Things’ any less honest, poignant, or meaningful for listeners. That’s the thing about music- the song itself ought to live outside of whatever the artist was experiencing when the songs were created, or even outside of whatever the artist was experiencing when the songs were even released. I think Kelsea has undertaken that task with such grace, poise, hope, encouragement, and comfort. This is an album full of hope, safety, and comfort in the middle of a person’s personal hopelessness and chaos. I hope and pray that Kelsea herself finds healing from this divorce, and maybe even loves again in the future. That may happen or it may not. What I do know is this- that moving forward, Kelsea can draw advice and comfort from her own songs from SUBJECT TO CHANGE, and be reminded, just like the rest of us, that the journey of life is just as important as the events and the destination, that what we experience along the way is equally important compared to the end goal. Maybe, that’ll give comfort to those experiencing tough things in life…like divorce?
The album starts off with the title track ‘Subject to Change’, and right from the outset, we see this theme emerge that permeates the album as a whole- that change in life is inevitable, and more often than not, we can’t control it. The world changes at a faster pace than what we want it to, and in our personal lives, we change, other people change, situations, circumstances and relationships change too. And sometimes that’s in your control, but more often than not…it’s not. And that’s ok. To embrace change is to keep in mind, that we can’t be fazed, affected, or worried about every single minute thing that happens in our lives. Because to be subject to change is to do this one thing that people are afraid of doing- relinquishing control. Control over situations that we know deep down we have no control over. Control over our lives when in fact, we ought to surrender to the One we know who is in control. For to be subject to change is to have a sense of freedom, to live life fully, without trying to be a people pleaser, without trying to deliver a cookie-cutter version of ourselves to certain people, for fear of them discovering the ‘unfiltered’, ‘unedited’ selves, and them not liking what they see. To be subject to change is to be open to the idea that we can change for the better, to be open to the idea that we ought not to be as rigid (in our ideas, beliefs, hard-core stances on _____) as we once believed we should be. For to be free of all of that is indeed liberating, but it’s also a chance for us to live without the weights and burdens to be _____ for people, especially when all along, we were trying to play a part and not even be aware of it ourselves. ‘Subject to Change’ the song, and in effect, the album, is about freeing us from the lie that we have to be _____ for people, otherwise, we won’t be as liked, or we won’t be as celebrated. Gone are the days where we should be caring what people think, and what should be happening, is to be living authentically, surrendering to Christ. True change is to embrace that the Lord has things under control, even when we look in front of us, and we see the opposite. A song that is encouraging as it is equally confronting, this song is a perfect start to an album that is deeper, more personable, and even more relevant to listeners, than even themselves realise.
‘…I put so much weight on being a role model, because I was the most impressionable preteen and teenager. Anything that the artists and people that I loved in pop culture were doing, I wanted to do it, and so I realized that now I’m that for some people. I used to think that meant I can’t misstep or misspeak and I had to be in a glass box, basically. I’ve really just recalibrated that now, because if I was a mom and I had a daughter, I would want her to be surrounded by people in her real life and the music she listens to that are people that are showing up as they are; and showing that in the best and most pure way that they feel they can. And so that’s even why the tone… And I don’t mean my vocal tone, I mean my tone of lyric, my tone of voice on this album — it sounds like a 28-year-old wrote it. Because I let myself talk on this record like I talk to my friends on a Friday with a glass of wine. I’m just not so worried anymore about saying something wrong. I’ve done that, and you learn from it, and you keep going and you’re human. And I think when you take the fear away from that, to go to the whole theme of the record, the album is called “Subject to Change” because the idea is we’ve all been subject to change the last couple of years. And what if we take all the space that that fear takes up and just go: It’s inevitable. That’s how you become who you’re gonna be, and all that space that fear of change is taking up, I’m gonna use to enjoy the moment and enjoy my life, because it’s not gonna be the same tomorrow. It never is. But right now, this is real. This moment’s real. We’re drinking wine at this beautiful place in L.A. You know that’s gonna change. But right now, it’s wonderful. I think when you have that discovery — whenever you have it in life; I just had it recently — it allows for a lot more living to happen. True living…’
Throughout the rest of the album, we see Kelsea continue to deliver heartfelt themes that have been paved by the message present in the title track, as these songs remind us of the transientness of life, the gratefulness we ought to have about the things that are dear to us in this life, and the ability to just do our best and accept that whatever happens after that, is out of our initial control, and that that, in and of itself, is ok for us to reconcile. ‘The Little Things’, track #2, is a BOP that reminds me of something that has come out from the 1990s, as Kelsea relays this message and theme, that its actually the little things in a relationship that have more of a lasting effect and impact, rather than the big, grandiose gestures, that seemingly wow a relationship initially, but then fade as time goes by. It’s one of the few songs on the album that has a traditional 1990s country feel and sound, akin to something that Martina McBride or Faith Hill would’ve created back in the day- and bringing it back in 2022, is a good thing indeed. The message- appreciate the little things in life, and to not let life pass us by, without us being able to stop every once in a while, to ‘smell the roses’, and to be caught up at times in the moment when you’re in friendship/relationship with _____. Because if you’re always looking in the distance to a time when you’re _____ and you think you’d be happy then…well, you’re not really enjoying it all now. ‘I Can’t Help Myself’ lands at track #3; and is a song that someone like Shania Twain would be proud of- that track in particular reminds me musically of ‘That Don’t Impress Me Much’ from the 1990s, and in all the good ways that it does remind me of that song. The message of it is also timely and needed for society as well- to be willing to say that you don’t have the ability within yourself to help yourself, that you’re in need of help, and that maybe, asking God to help us may not be the most far-fetched idea out there at all. To admit that you do need help can often be the biggest step- many people in today’s society, especially blokes, are taught to be macho and have it all together, that asking for help is a sign of weakness. ‘I Can’t Help Myself’ attempts to change all that, and hopefully encourage people to ask whenever we need assistance, because asking for help is a sign of strength knowing one’s limitations, rather than taking on everything that we believe we can handle, and then burning out by the end of it.
‘If You Go Down (I’m Goin’ Down Too)’ is the ultimate female friendship anthem (the song can also apply to any time of other friendship too), as Kelsea relays this thought and idea, that ‘if you go down, I’m going down too’, this ‘I’m sticking with you till the very end because you’re my friend’ even if, by you saying that, you become complicit with a crime that maybe you didn’t commit in the first place. This song is about camaraderie, and how far you are willing to go (and what you’re willing to do) in order to help your friends. It has a ‘thelma-and-louise’ feel (again, another movie that I haven’t seen, but may see in the future), a ‘ride-or-die’ friendship atmosphere, something that we as a country and as the world, need more of, in these upcoming weeks and months ahead. ‘Love is a Cowboy’ takes Kelsea back to her country music roots, with light steel guitars and an acoustic guitar-driven melody, while the message is that of comparing a romantic feeling and love, to that of a cowboy and the traits that they have. While the song is a little weird in its comparison (between a cowboy and love itself), the song itself still reminds us to search for love eternal that’ll feel as warm and fuzzy as what is expressed in said song. ‘Muscle Memory’ follows along from ‘Love is a Cowboy’, with Kelsea delivering a driving message of how some things in life, especially in relationships, are just like muscle memory, and for better or worse, you fall back into relationship with ____ and back into certain habits, just because of muscle memory. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, nor a good thing, but it is a thing. Whether or not we read ____ into that, it’s up to us. What I do know is this- that this song allows us all to take a look at our own lives, to see what things require work, and what other things are muscle memory- and should they be?
‘I Guess They Call It Falling’, ‘Weather’, ‘Universe’ and ‘Walk in the Park’ are the four songs in the ‘middle-section’ of the album, that, if you were to put it bluntly, seem to not impact people as much as the previous 6 tracks, and the subsequent five others. Maybe, if Kelsea just took out those 4 tracks and released a ‘tighter’, more refined album of 11 songs, then the album as a whole would be more universally acclaimed and well received? Nevertheless, these four songs are still good, in and of themselves, but as a whole set of 15, these four unfortunately aren’t tracks that I’d gravitate to when hearing this album on replay. Nevertheless, these songs still show some merit- ‘I Guess They Call It Falling’ is a song about a reality check, acknowledging that sometimes, living on cloud 9 all the time isn’t healthy, and that often the reality check of freefalling flat and hitting the ground can result in realising that maybe the giddiness of a relationship isn’t sustainable in the long term. Relationships fail, and often ‘living constantly in a state of cloud 9’ can give people false hope, that when reality hits, it can be a bigger fall for people who idealise relationships and situations more than others. ‘Weather’ is a dance BOP, that brings about a motif and metaphor, comparing the weather and how it chops and changes, to a relationship on the rocks, and stating to a certain significant other, that they are sick and tired of their feelings changing like the weather; while ‘Universe’ is a light and acoustical track, that is an honest portrayal of how a love between two people can come and hit quick and fast, how it can feel as though it is perfect and right and ‘meant to be’. It’s unfortunate that Kelsea is going through a divorce right now- maybe ‘Universe’ was written for her soon-to-be ex, or maybe the song is a little less personal than that. But whatever the case, it’s unfortunate that such a heartfelt song would have to be sung live, when Kelsea’s not really living that out on a personal level. Maybe ‘Universe’ won’t be sung live, at this point in time? ‘Walk in the Park’ rounds out these four songs that may not be as ‘WOW’ compared to songs previously and subsequently- as Kelsea delivers an acoustic/folksy track about how someone’s temperament (and character) is no ‘walk in the park’- meaning that they aren’t as straightforward as people think they are. It’s a reminder that people are more complicated than we think or even give them credit for, and that that ought not to be a reason for us not to give people a chance, friendship-wise and relationally too. People and complicated and messy, and we’re all just fumbling through life, as best we can. A song like ‘Walk in the Park’ ought to remind us all, to give people grace, kindness and mercy, more often than we may say we do.
Tracks 11 – 15 are some of the most emotive and power-hitting combinations of songs I’ve heard from Kelsea in quite some time- starting off with ‘Heart First’ and ending with ‘What I Have’. The lead single ‘Heart First’, was reviewed by my brother, and according to Josh (and agreed upon by myself!), on the surface, this song is about a one-night stand. Yet a deeper listen reveals that the persona wants to commit to someone but doesn’t know how. As Kelsea reminds us that we will never know the future unless we step out in faith and take a risk, this melody encourages us all, especially single people, to take a chance on our dreams and what we deem as important and essential to who we are as people. This song is seemingly about single people taking the leap and trying out the dating scene- but this song can also extend to people who are stuck in a rut in life- Kelsea encourages us all to take the leap and take that first step and jump in with our hearts first instead of our heads. As a lead single of a project, ‘Heart First’ doesn’t really revolutionise the country music genre, or the pop music genre for that matter. But there’s something about Kelsea’s songs, this one included, that make me revisit them again and again. Maybe it’s Kelsea’s passion or the fact that it seems like she’s being super honest. Maybe it’s her fun demeanour that shines through, or maybe it’s because these songs make it seem like Kelsea is one of the rare genuine people in the music industry that are actually vulnerable, honest, and real. But whatever the case, if you were like me before and not a fan of country music whatsoever, I reckon that Kelsea’s new songs (inclusive of ‘Heart First’), will make you a fan. ‘You’re Drunk, Go Home’, a collaboration with Carly Pearce and Kelly Clarkson, is a fun and sassy song about knowing your boundaries when it comes to relationships and people ‘hitting’ on other people and whether it’s welcomed or shunned in a public place or setting. The song itself is ‘set’ in a bar-like place, where she says to her admirer (albeit an unwanted and maybe even an unrequited one) that they are drunk and they ought to go home before they say, or even do, something they might regret. It’s a cautionary song, about having your guard up against people that possibly could be considered to be a certain type that you may not like or even prefer. Undertaken and collaborated with singer-songwriters Carly Pearce and Kelly Clarkson, we’re reminded that such a track promotes this sense of strong womanhood and having morals and hard stances when it comes to attention in public settings that may actually be unwanted.
The last three songs on the album, ‘Doin’ My Best’, ‘Marilyn’ and ‘What I Have’ are three of Kelsea’s most heartfelt, profound, and compelling, as she pours out her emotions on the last few years of life and what she has learnt, specifically from the COVID-19 epidemic. ‘Doin’ My Best’ is the last two years of Kelsea’s life in song, as we see Kelsea remind ourselves (and herself too) that all we can do, especially throughout the last couple of years, is to just do our best in whatever we undertake, because that is all people should require of us. Doing out best in something is to work at it wholeheartedly, but to also not be too worried or anxious if things don’t go our way in ______, because we know we’ve done all we could, to lead to a potential outcome of ________. Doing our best often alleviates thoughts of regrets and what-ifs; and ‘Doin’ My Best’ the song ought to be a track that encourages us to not put so much pressure on ourselves, but to allow ourselves grace and breathing room, so that our best can shine through. As Kelsea herself relays to us, ‘…we were close to done with the album, and I was listening to board tapes from the first week of tracking, listening to “Muscle Memory” and “You’re Drunk, Go Home” — knowing that they were staples on the record, but I’m more or less playing a character in these songs. Like, this is not where I’m at in my life right now. And I wrote this book of poetry last year, and it unlocked this piece of me where I was like: What if I just keep going there? What if I’m that open? And I had this realization that I didn’t have a song that was quite like that on the album that represented that growth. And so that’s when I asked Alyssa, “Hey, do you have a track?” And I went down to the ocean and I just did word vomit and took ownership for everything that I have felt that has been messy or noticeable or cringy. That’s a song that’s been one that everyone’s obviously asked me about, but it’s also been one that the fans scream when they sing it back to me at the shows. Because that’s all we’re in control of as people is showing up, rolling up our sleeves and doing our best. And if at the end of the day you can lay your head on the pillow and go, “Did I do my best today? Yes,” then you should sleep well. And to be able to take ownership of all these things that people have publicly watched me kind of figure out, it’s like standing in your power a little bit…’ The album then ends with ‘Marilyn’ and ‘What I Have’- ‘Marilyn’ is a metaphor about someone who is whimsical, jovial, a little over-the-top, and a little too extroverted, when in reality, there are a lot more layers to them, and they present as this, just to cover up their insecurities and things they feel about themselves when nobody’s watching; while album-ender ‘What I Have’ is a song about gratefulness, of Kelsea being appreciative about what she has in life and acknowledging that though she isn’t as rich or as famous as _____, she’s certainly well-to-do. It’s knowing that she has things in her life that isn’t in a lot of other people’s, and because of this, it should make her more grateful and more considerate of other people who are indeed less fortunate. Or as Kelsea herself says it, ‘…I’m finding is what I think probably a lot of us have found in the last couple of years as we’ve kind of been forced to step back and look at our lives and had a lot of time to do that, it’s made you kind of look at what you have differently. And for me, I’ve started to really appreciate the little things a lot more…’
So there you have it. Subject to Change from Kelsea Ballerini. Could possibly be one of my favourite country albums of 2022, just because it’s so honest and raw. And though this album and all of its positive, sunny disposition would probably be overshadowed by Kelsea’s own public declaration of her divorce, what makes Subject to Change and Kelsea so relevant, is her own ability to be vulnerable in the face of something so personal, and still come out of it, knowing that in life and all its troubles and pursuits, that doing your best is all that anyone would ask her to do. Yes, there’s sometimes where we expect a musician’s life to be all rosy and nice, but Kelsea shows us that this isn’t the case. Life happens. Divorce, though we don’t want it, still happens. It’s how we allow the Lord to help us post-relationship that matters. In Kelsea’s case, here’s hoping that somehow, some way, Subject to Change can be a healing experience for her. Songs like ‘The Little Things’, ‘Doin’ My Best’ and ‘What I Have’ are indeed standouts for myself, and maybe, just maybe, they could be standouts for her as well. An album that is needed in not only country music, but music, period; this is a must-have if you love an appreciate artists like Carly Pearce, Lauren Alania, or Gabby Barrett, to name a few. Well done Kelsea for this powerful album. Looking forward to seeing what the Lord does with these set of songs, in the upcoming weeks and months ahead.
5 songs to listen to: The Little Things, I Can’t Help Myself, If You Go Down (I’m Goin’ Down Too), Doin’ My Best, What I Have
RIYL: Carly Pearce, Maren Morris, Lauren Alaina, Gabby Barrett