It’s obvious listening to Sarah Shook and the Disarmers’ clear-eyed, biting, and unafraid songs that integrity is the most important thing to the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, country-punk outfit. “A lot of artists are in this industry for fame, recognition, and money but those things don’t mean anything to me,” says bandleader River Shook. “Songwriting is it for me. It’s the only real healthy coping mechanism I've ever had. It’s life-saving. I don't care about any superficial things when I’m making a record.” On their resonant fourth album Revelations, produced by Shook and out March 29 via Thirty Tigers, these raw and resilient tracks come first. Throughout, Shook’s deft storytelling documents regular people getting by and keeping on, all presented without filter or pretension.
In 2022, Shook was remarkably productive. They released two albums: debut solo indie rock record Cruel Liars under the moniker Mightmare (Kill Rock Stars) and a third Disarmers full-length called Nightroamer (Thirty Tigers). Compared to every Disarmers record before that, which captured the in-the-room energy of the band with live recorded songs, the latter LP was instead more of a product of the studio with meticulous tracking sessions and an outside producer. While that effort was well-received, Shook believed the songs on Revelations deserved a more direct approach. “Since the Disarmers started in 2015, our strength has always been in our live performance,” says Shook. “To me, an album should capture the essence of a band. With this new set of songs that are all super special to me, I didn't trust anybody else to capture the songs and decide how to best serve each song.” Shook, who honed their production skills with their Mightmare LP and Izzy Ryder’s debut record, confidently took the reins during a blistering recording session, capturing 10 songs in two days.
For Shook, it was paramount the recordings match the band’s tangible live ferocity because these songs boast their most immediate lyrics yet. “All of my writing is autobiographical, and I write everything based on my observations and experiences,” says Shook. “But there was something about Revelations that felt more personal to me. I unlocked this level of honesty with myself and an ability to be more objective about the things I struggle with daily.” Take the title track, which finds Shook singing about the precariousness of navigating mental health under capitalism. Over a rollicking, twang-hued arrangement, they sing, “Black cloud followin' me around, little storm in my head / Some days I levitate off the ground, some days I can't get outta bed.” The track doesn’t preach or romanticize. Instead, it’s galvanizing and relatable.
These are lived-in stories about real people with real dreams, atmospheric pasts, and inescapable problems. “I think of myself as a collector: I just go around and collect experiences and observations,” says Shook. “I'm still adjusting to writing songs as a sober person but a lot of the themes are just about being a working person and navigating mental health and relationships with other people going through the same things.” Lead single “Backsliders” comes directly from Shook’s life when they were a bartender at a Chapel Hill dive called The Cave. The song is a deceptively breezy romp about workplace romantic entanglements with Shook singing, “Love you like a breath when I ain't workin' myself to death / cause I'm longin' for the ghost of a friend.” On one hand, it captures the closeness that only service workers can experience on the job but on the other, it plainly states how easy it is to fall into bad habits when dealing with any type of loss.
Throughout the LP, there are cathartic, snarling kiss-offs to villainous men (“Motherfucker”) but also moments of tenderness and ecstasy. Shook describes closer “Criminal” as their “gay cowboy song”, the torturous longing of the lyrics is anchored by shimmering guitar leads from Blake Tallent and bastioned by drummer Jack Foster’s hypnotic rhythms. River sings, “If lovin' you will always be a crime I'll always be a criminal.” It’s a triumphant line that highlights Shook’s emotional sturdiness. “That line got me thinking about how we as queer people have been persecuted, and how we so often have to keep all kinds of things under wraps because of the law because of social taboo,” says Shook. “I wanted “Criminal” to portray these feelings of longing and desire that two gay people can have for each other. They're complicated feelings because human beings are complicated. Gay love is every bit as complicated as straight love.”
Revelations is the most assured Sarah Shook and the Disarmers record yet because it so pointedly captures the gamut of the human experience: anger, sadness, confusion, love, and acceptance. It’s a document of Shook at the top of their game and a reflection of their own journey not just as a writer but as a person. “I’m a firm believer that if you are an artist, and you want to make better art, a big part of that isn't just exercising your musical skills, it’s growing as a human being,” says Shook. “So every time I make a record, I want to be able to listen to it and look back on who I was then. I want to see this arc and this evolution. That's really fucking important to me.”