It's been two years since the release of Kelsea Ballerini's third self-titled studio album "kelsea" and the subsequent "ballerini." Since then, she opened the "Remember This Tour," with the Jonas Brothers and won a CMT for "Performance of the Year" for "The Other Girl" with Halsey. She also won a CMAA for "Musical Event of the Year" and "Video of the Year" for "Half of My Hometown" with Kenny Chesney. In November 2021, she wrote and published "Feel Your Way Through," a poetry collection. However, in April of 2022, "Heartfirst," the first single off her fifth album, "Subject to Change," was released into the world, and on September 23rd, the album followed suit.
As a two-time Grammy nominee with seven number-one hits, Ballerini hit the ground running with this new record. She is not shying away from sharing parts of herself that become more difficult when she lives her life in the spotlight. She addresses things like her recently announced divorce from her husband of five years, that sometimes friendships don't end the way we hope, and her experience with therapy. "Subject to Change" thematically explores the changes we go through in life and how sometimes the weather can be a reflection of that (i.e., "Weather" and "Walk in the Park"). Ballerini also returns to her consistent themes of growing pains ("Doin' My Best," "Subject to Change) and comparing being and falling in love to the stars and the sky ("Universe," "I Guess They Call It Fallin,'" "Heartfirst,"). Despite the hardships since her previous record, "Subject to Change'' feels like a breath of fresh air. It is light and breezy while still full of heart and grit that Ballerini often shares through her music. She credits her open heart on this record to her emotional exploration while writing her poetry collection, "Feel Your Way Through," which touched on experiences Ballerini had not previously addressed in her songwriting.
Unlike her earlier records, "Subject to Change," sonically leans toward the country side of this pop country artist. Tracks like "If You Go Down I'm Going Down Too," "I Can't Help Myself," and "You're Drunk, Go Home," give off major Shania Twain vibes, and that is no coincidence. During the pandemic in 2020, Ballerini spent a lot of time returning to the artists of her childhood, including Twain, Trisha Yearwood, and music from The Corrs, whose song "Breathless" directly inspired Ballerini's lead single "Heartfirst."
On Saturday, September 24th, Ballerini brought the album to life by kicking off her ten-show-only headlining tour at Radio City in New York. This tour is the first time she's headlined since the spring of 2019, and I was at opening night. The show included four costume changes, a fan-picked acoustic throwback, and a twenty-four-song setlist. Opening the night with the title track, "Subject to Change," Ballerini dazzled the crowd in a yellow, flowy, ruffle dress with thigh-high, heeled yellow boots. Other outfits included a gold bedazzled cowgirl look featuring a crop top, shorts, matching boots and a cowgirl hat, a black leotard with diamonds, and finally, a pair of flared jeans with a shirt that read "I'm Doin' My Best'" for the closing number. Ballerin gave long-time fans the treat of hearing songs from previous records like "Peter Pan," "Love Me Like You Mean It," and "Dibs." Fans also picked a song for the setlist with the Instagram-voted surprise acoustic song each night. Every stop on tour had its song only played for that show, determined by a poll on Ballerini's Instagram story.
Ballerini is no stranger to holding her own on stage. She's been an opener since 2015 and headlined her own tours in 2016, 18, and 19. It's about time she returned to the stage as the main act. With five albums under her belt, this singer-songwriter has played to country and pop crowds and has the right amount of charisma and small-town charm to get an audience on their feet. It's not easy to captivate a crowd. It's essential to connect with the nosebleed seats as much as it is to interact with those in the pit whose hands you can grab and eye contact you can hold as you perform their favorite songs. Ballerini does all that and more. She dances and twirls with a smile that feels genuine. She makes the little kids right up front bask in her attention by interacting with them as much as she can, and she looks up and out into the vast audience with a twinkle in her eye throughout her set. I've been attending her shows since I saw her open for Dan and Shay in 2015, and her stage presence and love for performing art have not dimmed. She's a songwriter, but she's also an artist. The best part about experiencing a live show is when the artist and the audience bounce off each other's energy seamlessly, and Ballerini nails it every time.