Sarah Shook & the Disarmers Reclaim a Life Through Memory on Revelations

The North Carolina outfit are at their very best on their fourth album together, as they use bluesy riffs and a windswept pedal steel to create songs that are as terminally modern as they are mythically ageless.

Music Reviews Sarah Shook & The Disarmers
Sarah Shook & the Disarmers Reclaim a Life Through Memory on Revelations

To say that Revelations, the latest record from Sarah Shook & The Disarmers, is a product of survival would be an understatement. Written and recorded in the aftermath of getting sober and receiving a dual diagnosis of ADHD and borderline ASD during the pandemic, Revelations sounds like the kind of album somebody who’s drunk their weight a couple thousand times over and lived to see tomorrow might make. Disarmers bandleader River Shook is many things—nonbinary, atheist, a single parent—and all of that takes a delicate and attentive center-stage on Revelations. With their band—Blake Tallent, Jake Foster, Andrew Lambie and Nick Larimore—they have crafted what is the best record of their career thus far. Revelations is confident and revels in its plainspoken clarity. Musically, it’s an alt-country zenith.

The Disarmers’ last album, 2022’s Nightroamer, was, as Paste critic Annie Parnell aptly put it, a “sprawling reckoning” staring deep into the void of “a deep-seated faith.” This time around, Revelations finds Shook and their bandmates tightening up and performing instinctive solos with a flourishing, raw-hemmed edge—all while restoring a life through memory in the present. It’s not a leveling out, it’s a level up for the North Carolinians. With the title-track breaking the whole record open, the band stares down the barrel of hard-won truths and time-worn circumstances. “Revelations” could be about exhaustion or societal expectations, but the clearest read is that it’s a song about the intersection of religion and mental illness and how both of those ropes tug at the philosophies of birthright. “I been in the state that I’m in since the day of my birth,” River sings, against a potent bevy of bluesy guitar, heavy toms and bass. “New beginnin’s, I’m done listenin’ when the old guard tells me what my word is worth. Hey, baby, I’m barely gettin’ through each day.”

In a recent New York Times profile, River spoke about their life after moving to North Carolina from Western New York with their family as a teenager. “I went from 0 to 100, from having been kissed once to having sex to having a threesome the next night,” they said. “And then I married a guy I met on MySpace three weeks later and got pregnant two months later. Upending everything my parents held dear was an act of self-preservation, because their belief system taught me I could not be myself.” Across Revelations, River is meticulous in what stories they give us. “Dogbane” rears its head vibrantly, as they deliver a pastoral of lucidity, admonishing a life spent on your knees and questioning if there’s a difference between flowers and the weeds around them. “Well it’s lookin’ like the end of days / If it ain’t underwater, it’s ablaze / And we got hope and heartache in each gaze,” River bemoans in a warble that scratches at a yodel, trading guitar riffs with Tallent and tracing the fireworks of Larimore’s pedal steel.

On “Backsliders,” River pays tribute to their fellow wrong-turners with a generous love song glazed with retrospect. “Now I got one foot out the door and you’re still gettin’ dressed,” they sing. “Hate I can’t say no as easily as you say yes, I’m a real piece of shit and you’re a vixen in a dress.” The track is queer as all get-out, told empathetically from the perspective of someone who’s hurdled enough roadblocks in their life to sing with such bare-chested vulnerability. Larimore’s pedal steel is again a highlight here, but this time paired with Tallent’s acoustic guitar chugging along to River’s vocal phrasings.

When the multi-dimensional “Jane Doe” kicks in, River sings about a break-up disguised as a crime scene, deploring that “when you see me on the street, you’re just glad it ain’t you dyin’ out in the cold on dead man’s curve. You tell yourself little white lies, look me dead in the eye and say to me I got what I deserved.” The song patiently builds into a roaring, anthemic benchmark—River’s best-tracked singing performance of their career thus far—split open with a guitar solo that’ll make any venue room spin. Don’t overlook Foster’s drumming here, either. He’s the metronome of Revelations, and his pounding on “Jane Doe” is a particularly special feat.

Revelations gets angry, too. “Motherfucker” is a snearing lament of betrayal and bitterness, as River doesn’t mince words, declaring that “when I die and split hell wide, gonna be some sight to see and I’ll gladly burn forever when you’re six circles deeper than me.” The arrangement begins in the orbit of soft, featherlight acoustics before kicking it up a notch into a real rabble-rousing jaunt of pedal steel. River’s vocals coil into glimpses of a higher-register, flirting with a falsetto but never fully giving themselves away. That restraint fades on “You Don’t Get to Tell Me,” as they question the authority of a land of suffering governed by a higher-being across a romping, cut-and-dry country-rock track, singing “We don’t need no god to feed each other good.”

Led by River’s self-production, Revelations glows because of its cohesiveness. The Disarmers don’t reinvent the wheel here, nor did they ever need to. The grandiosity is firmly embedded in the talent, as River and their band inject some serious punk rock attitudes into a well-worn infrastructure of venerable country tunes. The guitar tones are crisp, the pedal steel sounds like a million bucks. But, more than ever, River takes us to a place of reclamation and shows us the heart of what’s at stake. Revelations is an outlaw record that considers what it means to be a trans Southerner during a capitalist crisis. It’s a project that is as terminally modern as it is mythically ageless. What gleams at the album’s core is a demand for kindness towards the time it takes to bring joy, clarity and identity into a lifetime. River Shook may be knocking on the door of their 40s, but Revelations sounds like their time here with us has only just begun.

Watch Sarah Shook & the Disarmers perform at the Paste Party in Austin in 2023 below.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin