Song Review: Kelsea Ballerini, “Hole In The Bottle”

I’ll be darned – Nashville can still make a decent drinking song after all!

The premiere of Kelsea Ballerini’s third album Kelsea may have been derailed by the coronavirus pandemic, but she was in a precarious position going into 2020 to begin with, as the album’s leadoff single “Homecoming Queen?” failed to catch the public’s interest and stumbled to a mediocre #17 peak on Billboard’s airplay chart. Ballerini and Black River had decided to make a full-court press on the pop side by releasing her Halsey collaboration “The Other Girl” as single #2, but after roughly two months the track hadn’t even managed to crack the Top 50 of either Billboard or Mediabase. Instead, much of the positive buzz around Kelsea centered on a different track: “Hole In The Bottle,” which garnered some notable praise from Ballerini’s peers and racked up some solid streaming numbers despite just being an album cut. This week, Ballerini’s team decided to stop rolling the boulder uphill, pulling the plug on “The Other Girl” and rolling out “Hole In The Bottle” as the album’s third single (and on a Wednesday no less!). While I ripped Riley Green and Lady Antebellum for similar decisions, I’m actually on board for this switch: “Hole In The Bottle” is a far superior song, and does a excellent job taking the “sad song done happily” trope that I usually hate and turning it into a rollicking good time with total clarity in its message.

The first thing that draws attention to this song is how it sticks out like a sore thumb among Kelsea‘s tracks with its production. Most of the songs here strike a similar tone as “The Other Girl”: Darker, moodier, and very synthetic in their sound. The drum machines are still prominent on this song (there seem to be some real drums here as well), but otherwise, the only instrument of note is a spirited electric guitar stolen fro Brad Paisley, and instead of settling for just carrying the melody, whoever was playing this throws down the best Paisley impression I’ve heard since “When It Rains It Pours” (the bridge solo is especially lit). With nothing else to counter it (there are probably some other instruments buried in this mix, but you’ll never notice them), the guitar goes rogue to create a bright, energetic, and incredibly fun vibe unlike anything else on this album (the silly, 50s-style informational parody also helps a lot). In short, this sparse arrangement completely transforms what would otherwise be just another “drink to forget” song into a catchy, enjoyable experience, reminding me a lot of what happened on Russell Dickerson’s “Every Little Thing.” All four of the producers here (including Ballerini herself) deserve a lot of credit for this one.

Turning a sad song into a party anthem places a ton of pressure on the artist to help sell the story, but Ballerini is more than up to the challenge this time. This is not a technically-demanding song, but it requires a deft touch to keep the track from falling into generic Cobronavirus territory (the narrator is ostensibly drinking to get over a failed romance, but they seem to be using that as a shallow excuse to get wasted). Ballerini navigates this narrow waters by bringing a level of self-awareness to the delivery along the same lines as Jason Aldean’s “Any Old Barstool” (they know darn well they’re lying through their teeth), but where Aldean tried to maintain a serious facade to play up the depth of the problem, Ballerini leans into the silliness of the writing with her delivery, using her pseudo-serious denials to lighten the mood and signal to the audience that while she has an excuse to drink, she didn’t really need one. There’s a palpable sense of enjoyment and confidence throughout her performance (she’s determined to have a good time, and she appears to be succeeding), and the listener can’t help but vicariously enjoy the wine along with her. Let this be a lesson to other country music singers: If you’re going to make a pointless drinking song, don’t even bother to try to play in straightmake it fun instead!

The lyrics tell the tale of a narrator who is drowning their sorrows in alcohol to get over a breakup, and based on the fact that they’ve completely lost track on how much they’ve had (“there’s a hole in the bottle leaking all this wine”), their sorrows are pretty well drowned. Given all the similarities between this track and the many Cobronavirus songs I’ve shredded recently, why does this one work when the others didn’t?

  • For one thing, there’s actually a point to the narrator’s insobriety: They aren’t drinking for drinking’s sake, they’re here to forget an old flame and have a good time, similar to Lady Antebellum’s “Bartender” or Runaway June’s “Buy My Own Drinks.” There’s an end goal here that suggests the behavior is temporary and done in moderation (in theory), as opposed to the pointless, open-ended invitation to drink yourself into a stupor on your typical Cobronavirus track.
  • Let’s be honest: The “hole in the bottle” hook falls so deep into mom-joke territory that it’s impossible to take this song seriously. While most Cobronavirus songs pitch getting drunk as a solution to all the world’s problems with a straight face, the narrator is clearly in on the joke here.
  • While the song itself is fairly short (even with the ‘information’ intro, it’s only two-and-a-half minutes long), I think this works to the song’s advantage: There isn’t a lot to the song beyond the hook/punch line, so keeping things short and to the point keeps the song from stretching the joke to thin and overstaying its welcome.

In short, we’re left with a concise, purposeful, tongue-in-cheek song that doesn’t give the listener any reason not to join the fun.

“Hole In The Bottle” succeeds where many recent drinking tracks fail because it identifies its goal (to be fun!) and focuses all of its efforts to accomplishing that goal. It doesn’t pitch alcohol as a cure-all for all of life’s ills, it doesn’t use its lack of pretense to demonstrate its superiority over others, and it’s doesn’t use drinking as an excuse for whatever stupid behavior may result afterwards. Instead, it offers upbeat production with some sizzle, writings that refuses to take itself seriously, and an upbeat, charismatic performance from Kelsea Ballerini that ties the whole thing together. I see this performing a lot better than “The Other Girl,” and while this won’t be the endearing song of our times, it’s a reminder that drinking songs aren’t inherently evil, so long as they are clear in their presentation, limited in scope, and above all deliver on their promise of a good time.

Now if only a few others artists would dump their current singles for better ones…

Rating: 7/10. It’s definitely worth your time.