Two weeks before Sarah Shook and the Disarmers were set to go into the studio to record their new album, the intuitive Shook sensed something important was missing.
"I was looking at a list of songs that we had, that we'd been practicing and rehearsing religiously for months and months and months," she says. "I was like, 'This is not complete yet.'"
She wrote "Years" and knew immediately it was the crucial element – the song became the title track on the North Carolina band's second album for Bloodshot Records. A jangling, scrappy number that recalls Social Distortion's "Ball and Chain," the song closes the album and gives Shook a chance to grieve over the once-supportive relationship she and her ex were building. "There was a time that you were kind to me, but baby, it's been years," she sings, her voice frail and glasslike as she switches to her falsetto and extends that final word across multiple syllables. Mere seconds later, she adopts a playful, singsong tone for a wordless melody, assisted by sunny splashes of pedal steel. The song shifts yet again in its final stretch, changing tempo and growing more resolute. It's a fitting – and heartbreaking – way to end an album of Shook's true-life tales about leaving an unhealthy relationship and clawing her way forward with tenacity and humor.
Shook and her band gained a national profile as fans caught on to the sneering country-punk of their debut LP Sidelong, released independently in 2015 but reissued in 2017 after the group signed with Bloodshot. Delivered with reckless abandon and attitude, the album chronicled stories of bad behavior and fucking things up – one song is actually called "Fuck Up" – from Shook's singular perspective. Based in the Chapel Hill area, Shook has been a community activist in causes supporting women and LGBTQ rights, along with being a pansexual single mother who makes her home in the South.
The songs on Sidelong tended toward the drunk and pissed, with Shook engaging in some self-aware wisecracking – sometimes at her own expense – as the dysfunctional relationship at the center of her life grew more intense and unpredictable. Those bad vibes remain on Years, but this time around Shook sounds clear-eyed and exhausted, at her wit's end. The first two songs on the album, the wry rockabilly tune "Good as Gold" and the barnstorming "New Ways to Fail," both make explicit reference to being tired, with the latter song narrated by someone who can't summon the will to leave bed to perform basic tasks – illustrating the drain of prolonged, toxic entanglements.
"You're so incapacitated by the amount of energy that you have to expend just to get through a day, that you don't want to get out of bed," says Shook, recalling the all-consuming effort required just to keep things from imploding.
Moreover, she notes, when someone is predisposed to seeking out unhealthy relationships, it becomes second nature to stifle one's own needs and well-being to keep the seas as calm as possible.
"That is a very real, everyday experience for a lot of people," she says. "You totally lose a sense of who you are and you get caught up in this very weird, very isolating, very controlled environment. And it's really hard to get out of that."
Shook has frequently played around with gender in her songs, adopting a masculine role or otherwise queering the narratives on Sidelong to sing about a woman that may have represented her or could just have easily been someone she dated. She continues that approach on Years, sometimes switching between perspectives and sometimes entirely embodying her ex, as in "The Bottle Never Let Me Down" and "Parting Words," offering empathy for his struggles without ever letting him off the hook.
She addresses her ex and the eventual end of their partnership from multiple angles, trying to point out her own faults in hopes that he can recognize his own in "Lesson," which speeds along with a sinewy, tension-elevating guitar figure in the chorus. "[It was like], 'Let's let all this negativity bullshit go, learn from what happened and just move forward,'" she says, recalling the conversation that inspired the song. In the graceful "Over You," she's begun to accept the fact that it isn't going to work out, but turns despondent in the weepy ballad "Heartache in Hell," admonishing herself for falling back into her patterns and wondering if she's got the strength to make a change.
In characteristic fashion, Shook always finds a way to crack a smile and lean into the storm. On "Damned If I Do, Damned If I Don't," she sheepishly begs forgiveness for staying out "'til the goddamn cows came home," but figures she was probably going to be in trouble regardless. It's a simple but radical way of seeing oneself through the trying experience of heartbreak without losing a sense of identity.
"That's the definition of resilience and defiance," she says. "There are a lot of people out there that do really shitty things to each other and I think it's perfectly healthy to allow yourself to acknowledge that and grieve the relationship and allow yourself to feel sadness to a point. But also to jut your chin out and be like, yeah well, regardless of all that, I'm still going to be me at the end of the day and I'm still going to be doing my fucking thing. That's something that nobody and nothing can take away from me."
On Sidelong, that sly humor was paired with the band's charmingly ramshackle sound, a mix of trebly guitars and rockabilly tempos that at times felt indebted to Nineties indie-rock slackerdom. By comparison, Years is a crisp display of precision. Everyone plays with fire and purpose – the guitar solos feel deliberate in their service of the songs, which boast some of Shook's most memorable melodies to date. Shook also sounds noticeably stronger as a singer, having studied vocal technique and refrained from drinking while the band recorded. The band got to spend extra time on the road in the wake of Sidelong – "We went further out than we've ever gone out. We played more dates than we've ever played," says Shook – and the polish shows on Years.
The group's musical growth and determination is reflected in Shook's new outlook, peering ahead after an experience that once consumed her days and nights. These days, she's focusing that energy on her band and making sure her own needs are being met.
"I can't tell you how clear-headed and awake and alive and good I feel," she says. "I haven't been single basically in like 11 years. Being single and being in a position where I'm like, OK, yeah, the serial monogamy thing is not working out for me, so we're just gonna avoid that entirely in the future and we'll make up our own rules as we go – that's a freeing thing."