It already seems like Kelsea Ballerini is a fixture on the scene, but America's barely had time to blink since her debut, "The First Time." Four major singles, a headlining tour and an armful of awards are just some of the harvest that followed. Some of that star power exceeds musical gifts - Ballerini has that insta-charm that makes her a ready TV guest or host. She's from Tennessee and smiles for miles. But she also gives off a wiser, worldlier vibe than many others of her performing "class." This comes out in her songwriting, which often mines for deeper ideas than standard pop/country fare. Case in point, number one record "Peter Pan" became an anthem to ladies dealing with entertaining, but unreliable sweethearts.
All of the above set the bar high for Ballerini's sophomore release. But two other factors from the artist's personal life came into play - a major breakup and meeting a soulmate. Almost all of "Unapologetically" concerns one of these two topics, and it splits the record into distinct halves. The first five songs are the break-up tunes, that flit between misery ("Graveyard") and self-motivation. "Miss Me More" stands out in that bunch, but these aren't songs you haven't heard before with other titles. Where's the cool topical scope of that first record or that R&B tint that made "Love Me Like You Mean It" so infectious? The low point is the forced phrasing of "Machine Heart," unworthy of Ballerini's co-writing chops.
But wait - there's a major comeback in the second half. Starting with the slow and nostalgic "High School," a romantic and effective EP appears inside the full-length album. Ballerini's exorcised the demons and gets her groove back. The title track shines brightest, with fingersnaps leading a track custom-made for hip-swaying. "End of the World" makes a moving case for moving on with a stirring string and synth bed. The power-ballad punch of "Legends" has already made a dent in the charts, and it closes out the save. As the saying goes, there's no time like the First Time. But Ballerini's still got the goods, and leaves the listener with solid reminders of why she jumped the line to stardom.