This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Genre: Outlaw Country
Favorite Tracks: “Good As Gold,” “New Ways To Fail,” “Over You,” “The Bottle Never Lets Me Down,” “Years”
Sarah Shook scarcely curses on her albums, and for someone who frequently plays surly and hungover, you have to imagine there is some restraint being implemented. The highlight of her debut with The Disarmers, SIDELONG, was a track called “Fuck Up,” a working thesis statement of sorts where she indulges in some self-deprecating sailor talk. “I can’t cry myself to sleep so I drink myself to death / I got cocaine in my bloodstream and whiskey on my breath,” she sings, her North Carolina drawl shaking on the word “bloodstream.” “Ain’t a thing that I can change to get my luck up / I guess I’m just too much of a fuck up.” On “Fuck Up,” she’s singing about the kind of hard-hitting shit that’s been the working backstory of several decades of great outlaw country artists, from Townes Van Zandt to Billy Joe Shaver, and Sarah Shook has lived some shit.
YEARS, Shook’s follow up, is a glossier and focused sequel to SIDELONG, an up-all-night, same-shit-different-day update that sees her really taking stock of romance, heartbreak, and hurt. In her own words, it’s a record about finding a way ”through exhaustion, depression, betrayal, hangover after hangover, upper after downer after upper, fight after never-ending fight.” Those fights, just as they do in real life, unfold with a significant amount of give and take, an internal and romantic tug of war that she battles through red eyes and blurry nights.
Shook’s abilities as a storyteller have progressed since SIDELONG, and she makes sure to ring out all the drama she can with YEARS. Opener “Good As Gold” sees this back-and-forth unfold with a slow-paced beauty, and it presents her romantic relationships as markedly messy. While YEARS easily could have come out of the gates swinging, flaunting Shook’s snarl and Eric Peterson’s teeth-kicking guitar playing, “Good As Gold” is tender and tired. All the shit Shook has seen and experience since SIDELONG is in the mid-tempo shuffle of that opener, and it hurts. When she jumps into an upbeat two-step shuffle entitled “New Ways To Fail,” she loudly and proudly howls, “I need this shit like I need another hole in my head.” Remember how I said she rarely curses on her albums? Well, when she scoffs the word “shit” it feels great, like the messy heartbreak on “Good As Gold” is finally getting a due release.
That release, like I say, is complicated—it’s a tug of war, and we flip between Shook being over her ex (“Over You,” “Lesson”) and feeling alone (“Parting Words,” “Years”), that complicated and delicate balance between resentment and loneliness. Naturally, Shook deals with this balance through alcohol and drugs, and part of YEARS’ charm is that you can feel the long nights in the music. “Drown in sorrow again / Just playin’ my part / Drown in whiskey and then / I tear out my heart,” she cries, and as strained pedal steel caps the chorus of “Heartache in Hell,” you worry about her. Shook spends the bulk of YEARS alone, isolated and drinking to work through her self-doubts and romantic reservations, and even when she does us the service of delivering an upbeat honky tonk number like “Damned If I Do, Damned If I Don’t,” she’s doing it as the sun rises from a long night of boozin’.
But that’s the thing about YEARS: This behavior is what’s shaped Shook, and it’s the product of literal years working through these demons in any way necessary, even if it involves a bump of coke and a shot of Jack. SIDELONG was a great album, and had the unique energy of an artist giving her all to make sure her shot was worth it. And it worked. But YEARS was the album Shook’s been practicing making through trying to get her luck up and being too much of a fuck up all along. It’s cathartic, if a bit tragic, and tiring. She asks on the closing title-track, “All these years, and what do we have to show? / We been picking up the pieces far too slow,” and while she might not have that relationship anymore, she has YEARS, a phenomenal document about what happens when you pick the pieces up too slow.