Sarah Shook & The Disarmers' Nightroamer Is an Enlightened Kind of Tough

The North Carolina roots-rockers’ third album finds them turning over a new leaf

Music Reviews Sarah Shook & The Disarmers
Share Tweet Submit Pin
Sarah Shook & The Disarmers' <i>Nightroamer</i> Is an Enlightened Kind of Tough

With a sound somewhere between Toadies’ deep-fried grunge and the bombastic roots music of Dash Rip Rock and Lydia Loveless, North Carolina’s Sarah Shook & The Disarmers have been quietly leading the modern-day “y’allternative” charge. Mixing vintage honky-tonk breakdowns with punk sensibilities, their music delves into queer and political themes, and shoots refreshingly straight about sobriety and self-destruction—a reminder of the bottled demons that have plagued many of their country predecessors.

The band’s debut album Sidelong erupted in 2017 with an ornery, tongue-in-cheek cry, featuring a breakup song about being dumped for a man who’s “anxious like Dwight Yoakam,” as well as the endlessly quotable refrain “God never makes mistakes, He just makes fuck-ups.” Their 2018 follow-up Years found the band turning inward, exploring the nuances of relationship baggage in “Good as Gold” and addiction in “The Bottle Never Lets Me Down.”

Shook & The Disarmers’ new release Nightroamer, out now, finds them turning over a new leaf in more ways than one. Newly signed to Thirty Tigers, the Nashville recording home of Dr. Dog and Sturgill Simpson, the band’s examination of past relationships and destructive patterns now maintains a stubborn eye on the bright side.

On “No Mistakes,” for instance, Shook relishes the swagger of self-improvement, adding a reflective twist to the take-me-back anthem that earnestly hopes for amends in lieu of simply begging to get back together. It’s a leap into acceptance, a gleeful apology that relishes the lifted weight of owning up to past mistakes and working to make sure they don’t happen again. “Every time I find myself all down and out, I realize I am to blame,” Shook acknowledges over bluesy guitar backing and Phil Sullivan’s pedal steel. The self-awareness echoes the opening proclamation in “Somebody Else” that “empty promises are just dirty damn lies.”

Nightroamer shows off the band’s experiments in sound, as well. Laced through their country anchor are influences from Wilco’s indie rock-friendly Americana and the synthy power balladry of The New Pornographers, though Shook’s gravelly alto is rougher around the edges than the voices of Neko Case or Jeff Tweedy. The exploration is grounded in the band’s mutual respect and support for each other—after Shook composes the lyrics, the songwriting process is entirely collaborative. “I think that’s part of what gives us a little bit of magic,” they muse. “There’s no hierarchy.”

True to its title, Nightroamer is an album for shadow work, one that seems to relish meeting the darker parts of yourself head-on and admitting that you may be powerless to defeat them. “Don’t know where this road’s gonna take me, but I’d rather die than ever turn back,” Shook admits on the title track, a sly reminder of progress that sends country music’s archetypal midnight rider on a quest of personal growth.

The vulnerability of all this internal work can be terrifying, and Shook sits in that discomfort without trying to find the answers on “It Doesn’t Change Anything,” which, at first glance, paints a strikingly nihilistic picture of the struggle with addiction and depression. Still, there’s an undercurrent of empathy in its lyrics. In the same verse where Shook declares, “God is dead and heaven’s silent,” they offer, “I’ve walked the path you wander now, and I know it well.” “It’s holding space for somebody,” Shook says of the track. “It’s just saying, ‘I acknowledge what you’re going through and the battles that you’re facing are valid.”

Nightroamer’s dogged wrestling with uncertainty is deepened when the band dives into relationships from a queer perspective that often connotes uncharted social territory. “Where is the handbook for relationships that isn’t just how to keep your man around for 20 years?” Shook has said of the album. “Where is the offbeat situational relationship handbook?”

They explore these complex dynamics with the same gritty optimism that marks the album’s plumbing of personal depths. “If It’s Poison,” a woozy, doo-wop-inspired love song with an edge, takes a leap of faith into a new relationship that promises to be better than the last. “Maybe this time we got the time right,” Shook suggests at the beginning, over a swinging western waltz. Even if this particular relationship doesn’t work out, though, Shook is confident in their ability to meet the situation with grace, reassuring both their partner and themselves that “if it’s poison, baby, we will know.”

This sentiment is Shook’s ace in the hole throughout Nightroamer’s sprawling reckonings. Now supporting their gaze into the void is a deep-seated faith in their own ability to persevere regardless of what looks back at them, or what the outcome may be. On “Believer,” towards the end of the album, the possibilities of this revelation seem endless. “Two guesses where I’ve been, two guesses where I’m going,” they sing over a grungy acoustic riff that gradually rises. “Love her or leave her, I’m a believer.”

Annie Parnell is a host and writer based in Richmond, Virginia. Her writing has appeared in The Boot, PopMatters, Audiofemme and elsewhere. She can be found identifying native plant species in her backyard, on Twitter at @avparnell, or at her website, avparnell.wordpress.com.