There is a distinct weariness to Years, the new album by Sarah Shook and The Disarmers. Shook’s songs are full of angst and disappointment over failed relationships and the people on both sides of those relationships. But along with the anger there is a sense that every break up and argument catalogued here is, understandably, wearing her out.
However, this album is anything but tiring to listen to. It may not be anything new to combine elements of country and rock, but Years has a sound that’s very much it’s own. It’s clear that Sarah Shook and the Disarmers take some inspiration from a diverse range of classic country music, though Shook’s delivery and lyrics are clearly not the overly polished stuff of Nashville past or present. Tracks like New Ways To Fail have a touch of the Bakersfield sound to them, whilst Damned If I Do, Damned If I Don’t has a Rockabilly meets Honky Tonk feel. But despite having the hallmarks of some classic country sounds, the tone of the record is grittier, more rough around the edges than a lot of country music and really fun to listen to as a result.
Shook’s lyrics also incorporate a twist on classic country tropes, and she happily plays around with gender roles and perspectives. Women rarely get to be the hard drinkers in country music but Shook is willing to take on that role, claiming that booze is “the only thing left that I got that I can / Make me feel the man I used to be” in The Bottle Never Let’s me Down. Also, the pleading, locked out drunk on Damned If I Do… is a familiar figure in country lore (think Hank Williams’ Move It On Over) but one that, again, has usually been played by a man. Obviously Shook doesn’t shy away from self criticism here. And it’s that honesty when it comes to her own faults that makes songs like Good as Gold, where she takes a soon to be ex-lover to task, seem even more cutting.
Whilst it’s Shook’s songwriting that stands out most on the record, the Disarmers deserve some credit for the fantastic job they do backing her up. The intertwining lines of pedal steel player Phil Sullivan and guitarist Eric Peterson in particular provide some of the most memorable moments of the album and work perfectly with Shook’s melodies. It’s the cohesive sound of a band that’s been playing together for sometime and know just what they’re doing.
Years is above all, an honest album. It’d be easy to categorise these songs as well written works of fiction if it wasn’t so easy to hear the weariness in Shook’s voice. That’s not to say she’s not giving it her all in her performance here, she clearly is, but Sarah Shook means every damn word of this record and it shows.