This is exactly the sort of song I didn’t want Kelsea Ballerini to release.
I’ve been a Ballerini booster ever since she dropped The First Time back in 2015, mostly because as a writer and vocalist, she had the skill to eschew generic and mediocre material to dive in more-complex topics and feelings, as she does on songs like “Peter Pan,” “Miss Me More,” and even her recent single with Kenny Chesney “Half Of My Hometown.” The problem is that early on, Black River tried to push her into a standard pop-princess model by dropping lightweight singles such as “Dibs,” “Legends,” and “Yeah Boy” (I gave this an 8/10 in one of my first reviews back in the day, which says more about how my musical tastes have evolved over the years than anything else), which felt like a colossal waste of her talents. Unfortunately, much like some other artists that emerged in the Bro-Country era (Thomas Rhett, Cole Swindell, etc.), there’s a portion of their fanbase that will always crave those songs, which leads us to “HEARTFELT,” the presumed leadoff single to Ballerini’s fourth* album (*I’m counting kelsea and ballerini as the same album; one’s just a re-recording of the other). It’s a love song that’s adequately-executed but ultimately unremarkable, and doesn’t encourage the listener to stay tuned in.
The production sets a suitable mood, for the song, but doesn’t go beyond that to help draw in its audience. The song opens with some bright acoustic strings (guitars and mandolins) and some slurry synth tones that run the risk of washing out the sound, and then brings in the usual electric guitars and drums (the latter of which sound overly sharp on top on the synth stabs) and gives spot duty to a steel guitar that ultimately doesn’t get enough screen time to influence the sound much. The tones are bright and the tempo is relaxed, resulting in a light, fluffy sound that helps supplement the romantic aims of the writing. Yes, there’s a ephemeral and superficial vibe to the sound, making the relationship feel like a simple passion-driven fling rather than any substantial, but that’s kind of what the writing wants as well: If someone is diving in “HEARTFIRST,” they’re accepting the risk, rolling the dice, and trying to stay in the moment. My main issue here is that there’s nothing here beyond by brief steel guitar appearances to elevate this mix beyond background noise: These are nothing but empty sonic calories, and while they complement the writing, their sales job is mediocre at best. It’s a lightweight mix that feels unmoored, and the feeling vanishes as quickly as the emotions that inspired it once the song ends.
Ballerini’s performance suffers from much the same problem: She breezes through the song without breaking a sweat and captures the smitten-yet-self-aware vibe of the narrator, but there’s something missing to break through to the audience and get them to pay attention. Her relaxed delivery makes sense for much of the song, but seems like it glosses over some of the pitfalls of a failed romantic bet (it’s like “sure, we could end up hating each other’s guts and cursing our very existence, but whatevs”), and by not dropping any forceful passion on us, the listener gets the sense that’s they’re not really invested in the relationship or even care whether it blossoms or wilts. The result is that in turn, the audience never feels the need to care about the narrator’s story either: Sure, they seem happy and all, but this tale’s been told a million times before—why should we concern ourselves with this one, especially when you don’t seem to care much about it yourself? In the end, Ballerini’s approach doesn’t hurt the song, but it doesn’t help it much either, and the listener quickly moves on when the song ends.
Generously, you could say that the lyrics capture the narrator’s intense feelings at the start of a new potential romance, where they don’t care where things end up because they feel so good right now. Cynically, you could say that this song is the mirrored version of all the nihilistic Bro-Country and Boyfriend country tracks we’ve had dumped on us over the last few years: The narrator runs into someone, declares them a person of interest, and pursues them in the name of a one-night stand with no thoughts or cares about the future. The scenes are stock images of drinking, dancing, t-shirts and elevator makeouts, and while the narrator is fully aware that whatever they’re feeling might not last, their devil-may-care attitude makes the story feel more like a product of aimless passion rather than love. Throw in a meh hook and the presence of only one standout line in the entire song (“only the moon knows what’s in the stars”), and you’ve got a recipe for kinda-sorta-maybe love song that’s more forgettable than anything else. (Also, and I’m surprised I haven’t mentioned this yet, but can we stop with the pointless ALL-CAPS song titles already?)
“HEARTFIRST” feels like yet another attempt to stuff Kelsea Ballerini into the same old boring country-pop princess mold, and what Black River needs to realize (and needed to realize years ago) is that this woman is way better than that. I get that summer’s coming and this thing simply screams “radio-friendly,” but this song just feels lightweight and hollow, a throwaway track when they really needed an album-mover, and it just doesn’t compare well when stacked up against Ballerini’s best work. In the end, this is a thing that merely exists, and in six months no one will remember that it existed at all.
Rating: 5/10. Don’t go out of your way to hear this one.