Kelsea Ballerini emerged as a leading, youthful voice in country pop during the mid-2010s by forging a chummy connection with fans. She co-wrote everything on her debut The First Time, an effervescent album that reflected her insight into what it’s like growing up feeling full-strength feelings. By her follow-up, 2017’s Unapologetically, Ballerini was fine-tuning vocal inflections to achieve performances that felt savvier and more personalized. But there’s a more dramatic development on kelsea, her third album: She’s stepped into a producing role, emphasizing that she’s shaping her vision from all sides.
The overall effect of this new approach is one of unguarded closeness, but in actuality, it's her most sophisticated work to date. There’s almost startling clarity to Ballerini’s depictions of anxiety and introversion in “overshare,” “club,” “homecoming queen?,” “needy,” and “la.” It was a highly clever, and relatable, move on her part to craft an airy banger, “club,” about dreading the messy interactions of the late-night bar scene. The track “needy” is deceptively upbeat about the gravitational shift from frequent socializing to retreating into a romantic partnership, even as Ballerini’s choice of language subtly acknowledges insecurity. The wry, bouncy, pop- and hip-hop-influenced “overshare,” full of conversational detail, best captures what she’s up to artistically. “Truth is conversations make me anxious, even if we’re on a first-name basis,” she confides. “Same story for the hundredth time, and they roll their eyes ’cause it’s TMI.” But Ballerini also flexes her stylistic range by summoning the coy kinetic energy of “Toxic”-era Britney Spears during “bragger” and tweaking beloved country tropes elsewhere. The mischievous drinking tune “hole in the bottle” merges down-home chicken-picking guitar with digital gloss and a brisk beat, while “half of my hometown” is a fresh take on how a person’s affectionate relationship to where she came from can be uncomfortably altered by leaving.