Album Review – Sarah Shook’s “Years”

photo: Jillian Clark Photography

Sarah Shook and the Disarmers’ second record Years doesn’t exhibit what would generally be considered incredible songwriting. The tunes aren’t performed by a top notch collective of hot shot players who are known as titans in their respective fields. There is no innovative or evolutionary musical leaps performed on this album, no underlying conceptualized approach that works towards a greater understanding, nor is it a sweeping thematic undertaking that resonates with the listener on a grand scale. There are no timely political narratives, no cross-genre collaborations or blending of influences in novel or inventive ways. Conventionally speaking, you probably wouldn’t even regard Sarah Shook as a great singer.

But what Years has that so many albums that boast some or all of the aforementioned attributes lack is what all true listeners ultimately come to music for—a trump card that supersedes all other concerns, benchmarks, and gradients. It’s the part of music you can never learn, never practice up, never teach or toil to capture. Either you have it, or you don’t. And Sarah Shook has it. She has it in spades, while so many others fail to grasp even the mere notion of it.

You think music is a skills competition? You think what speaks deeply to people in music is the perfection served through drum loops and Auto-Tune, or technically adept musicianship, or even vintage styling conveyed through cute production techniques trying to emulate past greatness? Four scraggly dudes and a single mother from North Carolina just proved they can supersede all other efforts simply by assuring the pain and the blood of real life experiences are sown straight into your songs, embedded between the notes, and born out in the melodies. Years is soaked in whiskey and sweat, tenderized through conflict, forged from 700-mile van rides to play $200 shows, and ultimately captured in studio recordings that like a great sponge, are able to soak up all of that pain, and convey it with lossless quality.

Sarah Shook is the badass woman we’ve been waiting years for. She can play the guys off the stage and drink them under the table, all on a half night’s sleep and her eyelids at half mast. Years is the exact type of country music album you crash little music websites and Spotify playlists searching for—that album that immediately sucks you in, and promises years of enjoyment and recurring listens, even in the world of endless audio variety. It’s a record that feels like it was made specifically for you, regardless of you’re in the midst of a breakup and a bout of drunken depression, or you’re beyond all of that and enjoying a stable, sober family life. It’s an album where every song begs to be heard, and not one gets passed over. There’s nothing expressly special about any of it. But there’s something especially warm about all of it, making you say, “This is what I’m talking about when I say I love country music.”

Sarah Shook and the Disarmers have the lovability of your favorite local band, yet with an international appeal. It’s not their skill, it’s their hustle. Sarah Shook’s songwriting is never challenging to the intellect, but it’s always clever. In the intangibles such as heart, soul, authenticity, and emotion, Sarah Shook scores off the charts, and makes it look easy. And it’s country, served with no prefixes, suffixes or hyphenated qualifiers needed, except to say this is country from the shadows, and the underground. In fact one concern you may feel bubbling under as you listen is if enough variety will present itself to keep you engrossed from cover to cover. But as soon as this thought enters your brain, Shook pulls out the song “Lesson,” which has just enough of a mod and surf feel to spice things up. This is chased by the swinging “Damned If I Do, Damned If I Don’t” that you could hear Bloodshot Records label mate Wayne “The Train” Hancock do in his prime.

If there is one thing you could pull out of this music and identify as to why Sarah Shook is so immediately infectious beyond the intangibles, it’s her ability to construct melodies, and ones that so perfectly fit with the mood she’s looking to convey. This is the portion of songwriting that so many of today’s top wordsmiths struggle with, while Sarah seems to effortlessly allow her choruses to become whirlwinds of emotion and appeal, rendering them so pleasantly inviting, no matter the dour mood of the often depressing stories she unfolds. As inviting as the melodies are, you almost have to remind yourself this is music from the dark underbelly of country, full of alcohol, depression, and conflict.

And you cannot overlook what Sarah Shook has accomplished without giving at least a mention to her ace in the hole, guitar player Eric Peterson. Just like Sarah, Eric Peterson perfects the blue collar approach to music with licks and tones and leads that you would never look to teach to others as technical fundamentals, but blow away what so many others players do because he comprehends the mood of a song, and is able to draw the emotions out of a piece of music while minding the melody by listening just as much as playing, as do all the Disarmers.

Also, finally we have a performer who will be lauded by certain critics due simply to identifiers and other non musical concerns whose music is actually superior to the standard Americana or mainstream fare instead of being judged on a sliding scale—that is if the often exclusive east Nashville media syndicate will give Sarah Shook and the Disarmers the attention they deserve. Sarah embodies the very roots of country music rebellion, and the staunch, independent approach first sparked by the original Outlaws, and embedded into the founding of organizations like Bloodshot Records.

Sarah Shook was first championed here on Saving Country Music when she was unsigned and still very much a local personality simply looking for an avenue to share her music. Now she is a name everyone should be paying attention to for setting the bar for infectiousness and authenticity. The Years may have been hard on Sarah Shook, but they’re kind to us from the results that bear out in her music, and hopefully they finally pay off for all the sweat and toil she’s captured in this record.

Two Guns Up.

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Purcahse Years by Sarah Shook and the Disarmers