Song Review: Kelsea Ballerini, “Legends”

There’s a fine line between a song being “effectively vague” and “just plain confusing.” Unfortunately for Kelsea Ballerini, “Legends” falls on the wrong side of this line.

Ballerini exploded onto the country music scene in 2015 with her debut album The First Time, which would have received my “Album Of The Year” award had I been running a blog at the time. Despite Black River Entertainment’s insistence on marketing Ballerini as a pop princess and releasing fluffy singles like “Dibs” and “Love Me Like You Mean It,” The First Time also featured deep cuts that demonstrated Ballerini’s ability to write and perform darker, more-serious material (the title track, “Secondhand Smoke,” and the excellent “Peter Pan”). Now, however, there seems to be a question about which of these directions to follow, as “Legends,” the leadoff single for Ballerini’s sophomore album, seems to try to split the difference between lighter and darker topics, and ultimately ends up covering neither satisfactorily.

Unlike a lot of songs on the radio today, the production here is anchored mostly by a piano, with an electric guitar relegated to background duty save for the a solo on the bridge. The percussion doesn’t jump into the song immediately and starts with a restrained drum machine, but eventually switches to a prominent (real) drum set on the first chorus. The full mix gives off the vibe of a strong, uplifting power anthem (it makes me think of Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” for some reason), but the constant use of minor chords muddle this feeling and introduce enough darkness into the tune to make you wonder if the song is supposed to a happy reflection, a sad remembrance, or both.

These mixed messages extend to the writing as well, which doesn’t seem as sharp overall as Ballerini’s prior work. On one hand, saying “loving you baby, it was heaven” indicates that the song is about two people who shared a fantastic relationship long ago, but saying “we didn’t do it for the fame or the glory” makes no sense in that context—outside of shameless gold diggers, who gets into a relationship for fame or glory? It starts to sound like the pairing was a business relationship, as if they were co-founders of a rock band that struck it big, rather than a romantic one. The lyrics also include some unnecessarily-awkward phrases (“blood, sweat, and heartbeats?” Really?), and they focus completely on the positive aspects of the relationship without ever talking about what ended it (Death? Infidelity? Two young people just growing apart?). While leaving songs intentionally vague so that they apply to as many situations (and connect with as many people) as possible is a oft-used and effective songwriting strategy (in fact, Ballerini cites the idea when talking about the song), they need at least a basic framework to set the scene, and “Legends” not only lacks that framework, the few bits and pieces that we get are contradictory and confusing. If the listener does not have a memory that they can easily relate the song to, they aren’t able to connect with the song at all.

To her credit, Ballerini delivers a solid performance here that demonstrates both her abilities and her effortless charisma. The song challenges her a bit more than her past singles by stress-testing her range (bouncing from her lower ranges to her soprano within a single verse), but she handles it well, while also showing off her impressive flow when called upon. While she’s held back by the mixed signals from both the production and the writing, Ballerini strikes an unequivocally positive tone with her delivery, focusing on the good times without giving what might have led to the relationship’s downfall a second thought. This is a feel-good song for Ballerini, and it’s a shame that the rest of the song waffles on this idea instead of taking a stand.

Overall, “Legends” is a confusing track that doesn’t quite connect with the listener the way it wants to, and instead leaves them unsure how to feel when it’s over. It doesn’t measure up to the tracks we saw on The First Time, and despite Ballerini’s vocal performance, it raises the specter of a sophomore slump with her upcoming album. While her future remains bright, I’m guessing that when historians discuss Ballerini’s own legend in years to come, “Legends” won’t rate much of a mention.

Rating: 5/10. You aren’t missing much here.