‘Kelsea’ Sums up the Open Effervescence of Kelsea Ballerini 

Kelsea Ballerini emerged as a fresh young voice in country music with her 2014 debut album “The First Time,” on which she traveled down memory lane in unabashedly emotive songs that she wrote primarily herself. She catapulted to fame, becoming the first female artist since Wynonna Judd to top the Country Airplay charts with her first three successive singles. Ballerini settled more comfortably into a niche of her own on her 2017 follow-up “Unapologetically,” and now further expands her craft, extending her role to include aspects of production, on “Kelsea.” As the title suggests, it’s a record about baring oneself openly without any gimmicks. As such, it’s the most effective iteration yet of what Ballerini has delivered all along. 

The album begins with “Overshare,” a summery tune, with Ballerini sounding light and effervescent as usual. Ambient party noise frames the song in a social setting, and Ballerini sings in a conversational tone, letting out an occasional sigh to drive her lyrics home, as she tackles a topic surprisingly unexplored. She centers on it succinctly in the refrain of “I overshare because I overcare.” Indeed, willingness to show one’s emotions is a recurring theme of the album. On the lead single “Homecoming Queen?” Ballerini encourages the eponymous character to step outside her stifled, guarded existence, and bare herself. 

Like many songs, the single has a palpable ‘90s spirit beginning with a typical alternative rock guitar riff of that era — think Green Day’s “Time of Your Life.” It quickly turns country with the proper guitar treatment, and Ballerini’s endearing lyrics come in a fittingly welcoming voice that effectively conveys the sentiment. She vividly describes a character “zipping up the mess” and “dancing with (her) best foot forward,” and shows her knack for stringing words together effectively in the climactic lines, “What if you let ’em all in on the lie? / Even the homecoming queen cries.”

Ballerini takes this theme further yet on “Love Me Like a Girl,” a song addressed to a boyfriend, in which she insists, “When I’m crying / Baby, let me cry.” Her usual, earthy guitar sounds give way to a propulsive, but subdued stomp of a chorus, with plenty of reverb-soaked, twangy guitar incidentals, effectively panned to dress up the affair. Ballerini calls attention to the typical differences between men and women, entreating, “I wish you could love me like a girl,” while offering in exchange, “I love the way you hold me… just like a man,” and even elucidating, “The truth is, me and you, we’re wired different.” This is a song to blast on repeat for anyone who claims that “gender is a social construct.”

It’s no surprise that several songs focus on relationships. “The Other Girl,” a collaboration with Halsey, is one with a particularly original angle. Ballerini and Halsey avoid the usual reflex of blaming one’s competitor in a love triangle, choosing instead to muse, rather innocently, on the oddity of the whole scenario, through such questions as “Who’s the other girl? / Who’s the first? Who’s the fool? / Who’s the diamond? Who’s the pearl?” The track is a sonic departure, with a heavier, more electronic beat. Halsey and Ballerini sing the post-chorus together, with Halsey donning one of her numerous theatrical voices for a serpentine melody that adds some edge to Ballerini’s otherwise direct stylings. “Love and Hate,” an especially catchy song, and an example of classic country song-smithing, takes a similarly mature, nonjudgmental look at troubled relationships, with Ballerini calling attention to the thin lines between such dualities as “what this is now and what we used to be” and “the one that you choose to the one that you cheat.”A verse of lullaby simplicity opens into a belting chorus that resolves neatly upon the climactic line.

“Bragger” shows a different side of Ballerini, still wearing her heart on her sleeve, but now in regard to an infatuation. She starts with breathy beatboxing, and a skeletal guitar riff more rock ‘n’ roll than anything else on the record erupts into a festive romp with a vague feel of Motown reimagined as country. When Ballerini ends her verses with lines like “Hotter than a Saturday night,” she steps out of her usual modest persona, flashing an unanticipated feistiness. If this song expresses the sassy side of an obsession, “Needy” captures the more emotional angle. Over a backdrop that sounds somehow as if it were produced in the early ‘90s and remixed today, splitting the difference modestly between signifiers of each era, Ballerini unabashedly declares, “I’m Needy.” At one point in “Needy,” Ballerini reflects, “I like my Fridays all alone / With no reason to check my phone,” a sentiment further explored on her second single “Club,” which boasts the straightforward refrain, “I don’t wanna go to the club” where people “say stuff they don’t mean / And get drunk and get cheap.” A barely audible, minimal percussive track erupts, upon the chorus, into an onslaught of loud, distorted guitars, accompanied with Ballerini affecting a slight snarl in her double-tracked vocals. Having made clear her distaste for generic nightlife establishments, she goes on to admit enjoying a drink or two on “Hole in the Bottle,” which she has described as her “first drinking song.” The lyrics are playful and priceless, with lines like “There’s a hole in the bottle leaking all this wine / It’s already empty and it ain’t even supper time,” and “I won’t cry about love gone wrong / ‘Cause tears would water down this ruby red I’m sipping on.” It’s also the most sonically intriguing song, with an irresistibly honky-tonk guitar figure, fit to colorfully textured percussion that playfully splatters to mirror the lyrics upon certain lines. 

On “The Way I Used To,” the “Hole in the Bottle” and the aforementioned relationships collide, as Bellerini confesses, “I always hit you up when there’s too much in my cup,” and eventually falls subject to her emotions, going on to probe, “Does somebody love you in the way I do? / I mean, the way I used to.” There’s some engaging guitar and vocal interplay, with a slick shuffling of slides and bends, letting Ballerini riff off of the musical intimations and shine in the empty space. A beat picks up, and the song turns into quite a jam. No country album is complete without a homage to one’s home, and so we have “Half of My Hometown,” an articulate exploration of the opposing forces that pull one toward and away from one’s roots. Ballerini describes Knoxville, Tennessee through references to quarterbacks, prom queens, and back roads. 

By the time she reaches the song’s end, the characters she described at the beginning are raising the next generation’s equivalents. Interspersed are more weighty observations like “Half of my family is happy I left / The other half worries I’ll just forget.” Far from the most vibrant moments, the song is a bit bland and generic at first, although when featured artist Kenny Chesney joins Ballerini in the chorus, the two sound stellar in harmony. A counterpart to “Half of My Hometown” is Ballerini’s latest single “LA,” which explores her love-hate relationship with the titular city. The stripped-down track, finds her musing, “if I let down my hair in the ocean air / Will Tennessee be mad at me?” and asking herself, “Does it feed my soul or my anxiety?” as her modest vocal melody takes to a sugary high register, and overlaps upon itself in elegant harmonies. 

Kelsea Ballerini covers all the expected bases on “Kelsea.” Moreover, she does it in an especially cohesive way. The various themes explored on different songs all converge neatly on a number succinctly titled “A Country Song.” Barebones, bluesy guitar and drums develop into just about what you might expect from the title, with ample steel guitar, twangy harmonies, and all the works. Ballerini offers playful jests about drinking, going out on the town, and falling subject to passions. She looks back upon relationships with the balance of wide-eyed empathy and judicious maturity showcased elsewhere. She nods to her hometown upbringings, and she fleshes it all out into song, proudly wearing her heart on her sleeve with a winsome authenticity. Refreshingly direct and unaffected, Ballerini’s latest release is an effective statement of intent, justifying its title “Kelsea.” 

Kelsea is available March 20 on Apple Music.