Sarah Shook Roams the Night
I very much love Sarah Shook. Her music is a mix of traditional country, americana, and rock; She is as close to a throwback as exists in modern country music. Her songs are filled with heartache, sadness, and longing but also resilience. Her best work revolves around lost and traumatic love. To listen to Sarah Shook is to dive deep into the morass of the kind of pain and depression that fuels addiction. Her songs are about a hard life that barely hangs on. Many are kiss offs to bad lovers, sad but defiant. Some songs are warnings that, no matter how things seem now, they are not going to work out and it’s best to get out while you can. Pretty depressing stuff.
The latest album by Sarah Shook in the Disarmers, Nightroamer, goes even deeper into the ocean of pain. I can only imagine what in Sarah Shook’s life drives these kinds of songs. Right from the first song, “Somebody Else”, we get classic western twang coupled with dark lyrics like “I can count the days you were kind on one hand/You weakened me till I can barely stand”. Later in the album she returns to her outlaw country roots with “No Mistakes” which pleads to her lover “I get I don’t deserve demandin’/Baby please give me one last try”. That’s immediately followed by the title (and best) song, “Nightroamer”. This is a classic traveling song, the type of song that tells you that someone is leaving and it’s going to hurt everyone. Both the music and the lyrics (“I was made to be a loner/So let the night swallow me/Its starry eyed night roamer”) are evocative of one of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s greatest songs, “Tuesday’s Gone”. Nightroamer should be an instant classic and in 1978 it would have been.
The pain just keeps coming with “It Doesn’t Change Anything” whose lyrics tell us that “God is dead and heaven’s silent, death has lost its sting.” “Stranger” and “Believer” are both trad country songs that warn lovers that whatever they think they have, it’s not going to be good tomorrow. These are the darkest corners of the human universe on display for all to see.
You would think that with all of this unrelenting depression, pain, and darkness, Nightroamer would be hard to listen to. It’s certainly not uplifting. There are not major triumphs here, just the perseverance to go on living. What keeps Nightroamer from becoming ponderous is the music. There is lots of steel pedal guitar twang, coupled with Sarah Shook’s plaintive vocals – which makes me think of a female Jerry Garcia – to help lift the songs up. It’s not lighthearted music by any means but it isn’t morose either. This is the Sarah Shook and the Disarmers magic. You can feel all the feels without it crushing your spirit. Ultimately, you have catharsis instead of soul crushing depression. There are a few songs out there that do this well, The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes” or The Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” (what’s with all the blue eyes) come to mind, and maybe everything by Hank Williams. Few artists can plumb these depths of the soul without it weighting down on the audience. Sarah Shook is one of those rare beasts.
This is not a perfect album. Sometimes the rock influences come through too strong, yielding dissonance within the album. “Been Lovin’ You Too Long” sounds like second rate 70s Heart song with a horribly repetitive chorus. “If it’s Poison” is a little too retro, reminiscent of a Patsy Cline song from the 50’s. It’s a good song but coming on the heels of “Been Lovin’ You Too Long”, it sounds out of place. “I Got This” is much too pop for Sarah Shook. It almost sounds like a vocoder was used which would be tantamount to a criminal act. It’s not only out of place on the album, but it also makes no sense within her entire catalog.
The final song on the album, “Talkin’ To Myself”, is a great song but also seems incongruous. It is a 60s garage rock song turned punk rock, the kind that the Damned may have recorded in the old school punk era. The guitar work reminds me so much of “Neat Neat Neat” and “New Rose” that it was jarring to hear someone other than Dave Vanian singing. That said, it is a great song even if it belongs on a different album.
Nightroamer is inconsistent at times with pop and rock that doesn’t sync with the rest of the album. Thankfully, that seems to be its only sin. 75 percent of the songs are classic Sarah Shook and the Disarmers. Lyrically, they are a dark cave of the soul. Musically, this is traditional country music at it’s best. Sarah Shook brings your heart to the edge of breaking but pulls back just enough to keep you listening. That is quite a feat and one only a true artist can pull off.