In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.
—Alfred Tennyson, 1835
In the spring Kelsea Ballerini’s fancy lightly turns to ripping tired romantic clichés to shreds.
I tend to be more bullish on Kelsea Ballerini than most people because on her debut album, she demonstrated a knack for both writing and performing deeper, more-personal tracks than most singers in the genre. However, outside of the excellent “Peter Pan,” these tracks were relegated to being album cuts, passed over for fluffier songs like “Dibs” and “Yeah Boy” to let her label present her as the Disney princess of country music. We appeared to be getting more of the same with “Legends,” the leadoff track from her sophomore album Unapologetically, but her latest single “I Hate Love Songs” makes a refreshing (and enjoyable) effort to showcase her wit and her personality, all while blowing a raspberry at the traditional, unimaginative ways people talk about romance.
The production stumbles in the beginning by running everything through a watery filter so thick you’d think that the band was playing underwater, but what eventually emerges from the depths is a waltz-time, piano/percussion-driven ballad with a relaxed, retro, and even romantic vibe. (An electric guitar eventually appears to provide a simple bridge solo, and an organ and steel guitar provide some atmosphere despite drowning in the background.) The mix pits a number of lighter and darker tones against one another, complementing the writing by highlighting the narrator’s struggle between wanting to express her feelings and recoiling at the “usual” ways of doing so. It may not have the energy of a “Sway” or even a “Last Man Standing,” but it’s got enough of a groove to get you moving, and is so easy on the ears that it’s probably going to end up on every wedding playlist you hear for the next six months.
For someone who’s made a habit of trading on conventional romantic songs up to this point, Ballerini does a nice job pivoting to a narrator who can’t stand them and making the track sound believable. Her flow is surprisingly stiff for a song this slow, but her voice also maintains a surprising amount of tone despite the song mostly trapping her in her lower range (I would call it “effectively raspy,” much like Dierks Bentley) and her delivery feels both earnest and effortless. She’s a perfect fit for the snarky-but-sentimental speaker, and her little improvisations are a nice touch (you can just picture her shrugging when she admits she doesn’t know her anniversary and tosses in a “whoops” at the end of the line). Overall, it’s yet another outstanding effort from one of the genre’s leading ladies.
The lyrics are some of the wittiest I’ve heard in a country song for quite some time, as the narrator tries to find a way to express their love for their partner without singing them a sappy song. I have to admit, I got a real kick out of listening to Ballerini take a verbal sledgehammer to all the corny, overused romantic expressions we’ve all heard a million times over the years. This is usually done by pointing out the absurbity behind the symbol’s literal meaning: “Violets are purple, not blue,” “you’d die if your heart really skipped,” “roses just die in a week,” etc. (That last one is my favorite because it made me think of Brad Paisley’s hilarious “Flowers.”) There’s more than a bit of irony in the fact that this is essentially a love song about hating love songs, but at least the narrator is upfront about the issue and attempts to define their love by way of contrasting it to everyone else’s methods of expression. It’s a lot like Easton Corbin’s “A Girl Like You” in that it manages to use the common language of a subject while also expressing its revulsion towards it.
Overall, “I Hate Love Songs” is a pretty great love song that gives mainstream radio a more-complete picture of Kelsea Ballerini’s talents. Her label may continue to market her as a country music princess, but if she releases more songs like this, she’ll be a country music queen before too long.
Rating: 7/10. Maybe I’ll check out Unapologetically after all…