Tennessean singer-songwriter Kelsea Ballerini established herself as a talent to watch with a self-titled EP in 2014 and The First Time, her début album in 2015. Now twenty-four years of age, Ballerini returns with her second record, Unapologetically. Unsurprisingly for an artist based out of Nashville, Ballerini’s music has an inflection of country to it, but whereas The First Time placed an emphasis on its country music elements of slide-guitar, fiddle, and banjo, Unapologetically is a much more unabashed pop affair.
Opening track, Graveyard, wears its country influences in the muted twang of an acoustic guitar for the opening riff and, to a lesser extent, the brief guitar solo, but there is little doubt that the song is a thoroughly pop number. So much so that the melody of the pre-chorus and chorus feel exceedingly familiar, yet difficult to place. Despite the sense of pop déjà vu invoked by the track, it is well executed and the narrative of a failed relationship, while hardly original, is quite self-aware. The ‘break-up’ theme constitutes the albums first five tracks, running through the self-affirmation of Miss Me More and the heavy electro-beat of Roses.
Fittingly for a song concerned with the littoral that is kidulthood, that state of being both mature and not simultaneously, In Between is situated in the middle of the record, and the theme of stalled maturity is revisited on Highschool, which features a nice build in its music. Unapologetically spends its final third considering new love, and the pairing of I Hate Love Songs – on which Ballerini asserts “I hate love songs/Yeah, I really do” – with the titular Unapologetically – which is unapologetically a love song – is a satisfying tongue-in-cheek gesture from Ballerini.
Throughout Unapologetically Ballerini’s vocals are consistent, if unexceptional. She is not a singer who will wow the listener with a virtuoso performance, but this is not a problem as it is the song-writing, the seamless blend of country and pop coupled with a lyricism that goes beyond the expected, that drives Ballerini’s work.