In damn near every picture taken of her, Sarah Shook stares right back at the viewer like she’s sizing ’em up. Both defensive and defiant, her expression suggests someone who won’t take any crap but also someone who’s been dealt more than a fair share of it. That attitude inhabits her songs, where she personifies tough women who have suffered some pain but are equally capable of inflicting the same. The whole package comes together in that voice: equal parts anger and regret, soul and sacrifice. Shook sings from the perspective of a problem child of the highest caliber: impulsive, unapologetic, and impassioned. The songs she sings and the music she makes with her band the Disarmers on their latest record Years is the kind of stuff that defies a calendar. Could be 1962, could be 1974; that it’s 2018 only makes these songs sound more ageless.
Shook’s songs and the personas she inhabits therein seem lived in, rather than assorted poses. She sings with sincerity and conviction, bringing a pissed-punk attitude to her honky-tonk songs that could evoke comparisons to Chrissy Hynde or Kathleen Hanna. Bloodshot’s 2017 reissue of Sidelong introduced Shook’s hard-living and poetically profane songs to a broader audience from its initial regional release. Years picks up where that collection left off with brawling songs like “New Ways to Fail” and “The Bottle Never Let Me Down”, but also introduces new wrinkles to the band’s sound. Having spent most of the previous two years touring, the unit has grown as tight as they come, and they demonstrate both the breadth of their chops and the broad expanse of country music’s potential by refusing to limit themselves to a singular sonic palette.
The primary focus is always going to be on the name that comes before the ampersand in any group, but make no mistake that the group of players on this record come across as a defined and refined unit. Everyone is playing that the top of their game and contributing to the whole of the sound. Nothing that this band was playing two years ago sounded like “Over You”, which comes across as a straight-up pop song, “Heartache in Hell,” a gorgeous ballad, or the rockabilly jaunt of “Damned If I Do, Damned If I Don’t”. And as fresh as Sidelong struck listeners, Shook’s growth as a lyricist makes Years an even more revelatory collection.
Shook can turn from vulnerable to steel-eyed realism in a quarter beat. In “Good As Gold” she sings “I’m afraid of losing everything to you” but then accepts the inevitable without tears: “It won’t be long before the wrong song comes on at the right time” and then she’ll be “good as gone”.The stunning “New Ways to Fail” offers the classic line “I need this shit like I need another hole in my head”, which recalls songs like “Fuck Up” and “The Nail” from her previous record, but this time there’s more pride than pity in her delivery, and the band plays along just as confidently, particularly guitarist Eric Peterson and pedal steel player Phil Sullivan, whose jaunty riffs bring an uplifting lilt to the proceedings. This isn’t sobbing-into-my-drink country music; it’s get-the-hell-off-my-couch-and-outta-my-life affirmation.
Meanwhile, in “Parting Words” Shook finds herself “left here alone with this hole in my heart that just keeps growing”, concluding “Parting words can’t wrap their arms around me. “These lines are so much more complex expressions in song, especially when we encounter the song’s double reveal: first, Shook is singing of another woman and, second, that lost lover never did grant her the song title’s gesture of goodbye. Similarly, “What It Takes” shows how Shook has expanded her songwriting beyond the easy dualities of love and anger.”Nobody told me it’s like this out here,” she sings, “Is that what it takes? / It takes everything.” There’s still plenty of drinking and fighting in Shook’s songs, but there are more sober pauses where she struggles to make sense of all the drama. These are songs that don’t just make a strong impression; they make a lasting one.
Years is a compact, straight to the heart (and feet) record. Every song connects and no notes are wasted. It’s a new country classic, plain and simple.