The Tao of Sarah Shook can be summarized by the first few lines of “New Ways to Fail,” the second song on her new album Years:
It seems my way of livin’ don’t live up to your standards
And if you had your way I’d be some proper kind of lady
Well the door is over there, if I may speak with perfect candor
You’re welcome to walk through it at any old time that you fancy
‘Cause I need this shit like I need another hole in my head
In case it’s not already clear, Shook is proud of who she is. She doesn’t need your feedback on her art or her lifestyle. And she uses all the above to fuel her fiery take on country music, Americana, roots-rock, y’allternative or whatever the preferred term is these days.
Whatever you call it, Years is a rock-solid example. It’s an album built from shuffling rhythms, twangy swoops of pedal steel guitar, Shook’s scowling alto and plainspoken lyrics about the struggle (and coping mechanisms) of day-to-day life. The band behind Shook—the Disarmers—are a perfectly capable combo who sound plucked from the golden era of alt-country, the late 1990s. When they rock, they rumble like peak Old 97s. When they boogie-woogie, they’ve got some Bottle Rockets in ‘em. When they go full honky tonk, they recall early Robbie Fulks. (It is no coincidence, surely, that all three of those acts have released albums on Shook’s current label, Bloodshot Records.)
The highest of highlights on Years is its opening track, “Good As Gold,” a perfect twangpunk kiss-off song that introduces not only Shook’s tough talk but also the Disarmers’ formidable twin-guitar attack: Phil Sullivan on pedal steel and Eric Peterson on electric. Its roller-coaster chorus is the catchiest on the album, followed closely by “Lesson,” a song with a little surf-rock vibe coursing through its veins.
Elsewhere, “The Bottle Never Lets Me Down” is a sturdy drinkin’ song underscored by devilish guitar tone. “Heartache in Hell” is a fatalist waltz that showcases the band’s downtempo chops. “Over You” lets a little light into the sound, with the Disarmers painting a brighter picture even as Shook laments (but doesn’t dwell on) the end of a relationship. Similarly, the title track closes the album on an upbeat note despite its subject matter, the slow fade of romance.
“Parting Words,” on the other hand, proves even Shook can be hurt: “I’m left here alone with this hole in my heart that just keeps growing,” she sings, her voice quivering. “She took every single little thing with her that she owns and left me with only parting words.” Later, she owns the end result: “I deserve,” she sings, “parting words.”
As Years moves along, the natural limits of Shook’s voice and the relatively narrow stylistic range of these tunes begins to wear thin. Songs start to blur together, and a little bit of stretching—a quick trip to the discomfort zone—would be a welcome addition to the album.
Maybe next time. Or maybe not. It depends, probably, on where Shook and Shook alone wants to take this band. Until then, one thing is sure: As an exercise in exploring the various strains of left-of-center country and roots music, Years is spot on.