I’m gonna get this right out of the way: if what bothers you about country music is that it’s whiny, this album won’t do much to swing you. But then again, if that’s your problem with country music, fuck you! Misery is one of the great topics of popular music, and the pages of history are littered with miserablist geniuses I’m willing to bet most of y’all just absolutely adore. If you’re into Cobain, Yorke, Morrissey, Reznor, Staley, Curtis, Waters or any of the countless other depressed rock heroes I’ve forgotten to mention, then you should have no problem whatsoever with Sarah Shook here. And while I’m not about to start officiating any sort of suffering olympics, I will say that Shook’s got a lot more to whine about here than Morrissey ever did.
There are, I think, two very important anchors on this record, and the first is the opener. “Keep the Home Fires Burnin'” is a gorgeous, fast-paced ballad, centered around a very pretty jangly guitar and slide-whistling steel guitars, and at first glance it appears to be just another (very good) country ballad about missing an absent lover. Listen closer, though, and you hear an edge of terror in the lyrics, helped along by that trademark harsh warble in her voice. “I’ve got the fires burnin’ way down low/ Oh, come home to me”, she begs desperately, and you can tell that this is more than just mindless submissive devotion. “Oh, I move the days along, workin’ my fingers to the bone”, she laments, hinting at just how much is at stake in this poverty-stricken world, but it’s only on the following songs that the gravity of this relationship really becomes clear.
Sarah Shook, you see, is a woman who has very much experienced enough love to know how pain feels, and she’s witnessed enough dysfunctional relationships and painful collapses to know the deep, profound importance of holding onto something good while she’s got it. She takes some pleasure in excoriating a deadbeat boyfriend on “The Nail”, and the music plays along with that stomping beat and the satisfyingly percussive transition into the chorus, but there’s no real catharsis – just a list of unfixable grievances, piling up on each other as the two of them gather spite and grow further distant from each other. “Well I ain’t your last and you ain’t my first/ Can’t decide which fact is worse”, she sings, landing somewhere between sardonic and despondent as she contemplates the endlessness of this cycle of misery. The end is near, she knows, but she can’t finish it yet, and all there is to do in the meantime is channel her energy into loathing.
She fixates on his drunkenness – “You’re never, ever home and when you are/ What was once a happy home becomes a bar” – before descending into it herself on the very next song, seeking refuge from his damage in the very architect of their misery. She’s fully aware of the futility – “There’s a hole in my heart ain’t nothin’ here can fill/ But I just keep thinkin’ surely the whiskey will” – but she has no answer; she just keeps drinking, trying to drown misery under misery. The melody she sings is as mournful as it gets, and the angry guitar solos bring no relief from the despair. This is music about personal failure, and the pain goes deep.
The only break she takes from the intimate, personal miseries that define the album as a whole is the song “No Name”, a rough, comparatively fast-paced rockish tour through the wider misery that defines American history. “I’ve killed more living souls than the Devil can claim/ And I’ll kill a thousand more because I have no name”, she sings, rugged and forceful; I’ve yet to work out exactly what it is she’s describing, but I know it sounds entirely fitting for a nation with roots as bloody as this one. Elsewhere, though, it’s all part of the same tapestry: decaying, dying relationships segue into endless drinking, which in turn metamorphose inevitably into fierce, vicious self-loathing. “Dwight Yoakam” manages to fuse all three into a tragic swirl of misery, as she tries vainly to drown all the insecurities bubbling up inside her at the collapse of her latest relationship. “He don’t walk around like he’s broken/ And he siiiings just like Dwight Yoooaakam“, she sobs, drawing that last line into a desperate plea to nobody in particular as she describes her erstwhile girlfriend’s new flame, trying to cope with the fact that her very depression has robbed her of the one thing that made it bearable. So she turns, again, to the drink, digging the hole deeper and spiralling down into the void.
Some of the most deeply depressing songs I’ve ever heard reside on the second half of this record, to the point where I sometimes feel a little weirdly voyeuristic about enjoying them. “Misery Without Company” is as black a portrait of hopelessness as you’ll ever find in any genre, rolling pure existential despair at the ravages of fate into the helplessness of substance addiction and creating a postcard from hell itself. “This old world ain’t been kind to me/ And no matter how I try I can’t seem to change my stars”, she reflects, showcasing her talent for rueful poetic flair before descending into that tragic denial we all recognise and fear: “I’m fixin’ to dry up tomorrow/ I’m fixin’ to dry up tomorrow/ But for now, the only thing keepin’ my chin up is this bottle.” The blackened melody and the wizened cracks in her voice all contribute to the general fog, and any semblance of a light at the end disappears. This blackness is everlasting, and those desperate wails in the final iteration of the chorus seem destined to echo into the emptiness forever, drawing no relief.
The three-song stretch from “Solitary Confinement” onwards is a particularly hellish journey. What begins as an attempt to recover from the particularly cutting pain of being cast aside like a toy – complete with a particularly depressing, bleakly catchy melodic downturn in the chorus, as she finally, inevitably returns to the bottle she can never escape – turns, on “Nothin’ Feels Right but Doin’ Wrong”, into an uncontrollable descent into a horrid routine in which all emotions become dissatisfying except the cheap thrills of sin and self-degradation, until eventually even they become so regular and predictable that she loses all capacity for real feeling. This all comes to a head on “Fuck Up”, which may very possibly be the most total slice of absolute misery and despair in my entire music library. “I can’t cry myself to sleep, so I drink myself to death/ I’ve got cocaine in my bloodstream and whiskey on my breath”, she sings forlornly, by now buried so far in the blackness that she can’t imagine light. Musically, the song is a fairly standard downbeat country ballad, but her utterly broken vocals and hopelessly despairing lyrics place it in among the bleakest things I’ve ever heard. “Ain’t a thing that I can change to get my luck up/ God never makes mistakes, he just makes fuck ups”, she spits bitterly, rolling self-loathing and despair at the fickleness of fate into a concentrated beam of blackened misery.
This is what makes the other anchor on this record so important. The closer, “Road That Leads To You”, is one of only two expressions of genuine love on the album, and forms a very necessary bookend with “Keep the Home Fires Burnin'”, combining to light a candle in the impossible blackness and provide a ray of flickering hope. She doesn’t go into much detail about her lover, but she doesn’t need to – at this point, the fact that the love is real and purposeful is all it needs. And it’s at this point that the opening song really starts to make sense, and you really start to understand what it means.
She needs her lover to return from the north country, and she needs it because she knows the monsters that await her in the dark when she’s alone. She needs them to return, because she needs the relationship to remain real and genuine – because she knows what happens when it ends, and she deeply dreads what happens when it ends badly. She keeps the fires burnin’ low, not for her lover, but for her -because she there is nothing in the universe she needs more than that hope, and there is nothing she will ever cling to harder than that desperate lifeline. She can feel the blackness gnawing at the edges, and it terrifies her. The bleak loneliness of the bottle is waiting to consume her if she lets go, and she knows how cold it gets in the deep. So she resolutely keeps the fires burning, doing what she can to stave off the despair. She knows it well enough to know that she can’t let it claim her again.
And if that ain’t country, well, boys, you can kiss my ass. – Hank Williams III