In recent years, commercially viable alternatives to the cowboy-bro Nashville machine—Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Margo Price, among others—have distinguished themselves by highlighting their versatility beyond country music’s traditional strictures, operating under the broader umbrella of Americana and incorporating rock and R&B influences into their sound. With her wisdom and biting wit, North Carolina-based upstart Sarah Shook—along with her ultra-tight band of Chapel Hill session vets, the Disarmers—could follow right on their heels; the radio-friendly jangle and brief but bold stylistic excursions on Shook’s sophomore effort, Years, pave a path toward what could be a disruption of the country charts.
Years is a much slicker-sounding effort than Shook’s stellar debut, 2015’s Sidelong. Throughout, the shit-kicking electric guitars give way to acoustic strumming and tasteful pedal-steel licks; Shook is still singing about hard luck, boozing, and broken hearts, but this album’s cleaner, warmer production style leaves her sounding more moderately sulky than at the end of her rope. Perhaps only the smoldering “Heartache in Hell” plumbs the same emotional depths as Sidelong’s highlights, finding Shook “drowned in sorrow again” over sighing chord changes. That might sound overwrought, but Shook’s aching delivery exposes a vulnerability usually cloaked by her blunt attitude.
Years may not be the punch in the gut that Sidelong was, but it still spotlights Shook’s effortlessly refined gift for songcraft. Lead single “Good As Gold” has the chugging rhythm of a vintage Sun Studio classic and the melodic hooks of a modern Americana hit. But what really sets Shook apart is her refreshingly unconventional personality. “If you had your way I’d be some proper kinda lady,” she sneers on the rowdy “New Ways to Fail,” and she spends the album credibly asserting that she’s no such thing. And unlike so many of her alt-country counterparts, it’s not just because Shook drinks too much or has had her heart broken too many times. Not that she doesn’t frequently sing about both. But even on “The Bottle Never Lets Me Down,” she adds a wrinkle to country formula by choosing the bottle over a philandering partner because it “makes me feel the man I used to be.” The gender subversion continues on the next track, “Parting Words,” which, like Sidelong’s heartbreaking “Dwight Yoakam,” laments a female ex-paramour’s departure. Shook is quickly carving queer country into an excitingly iconoclastic niche.
Shook steps further out of the country formula on the ’60s psych-tinged “Lesson,” while the chiming arpeggiated guitars of “Over You” and the poppy title track recall early R.E.M. without the weird murkiness. Her music boasts the building blocks of potential crossover success: impeccable compositional construction; a distinctive songwriting voice; superb musicianship. For now, Shook is content to wallow in country’s grimy underbelly, embracing the genre’s traditional tropes while pushing them to unexpected places.