I promised in my review of Sarah Shooks’ “No Mistakes” to open this album review with a diatribe against the late Bloodshot Records, more specifically the controversies that circled it over the past few years that delayed – and in some ways, continue to delay – several artists from finding new label homes and/or releasing new material. The more I thought about it, though, the more it didn’t make sense to dwell on something that complicated and worth a conversation of its own, especially when the damage done has already been established (even without digging into the deeper details), even if its scars still linger.
And for the artists that have moved on, it feels better to move on with them. I remember how I breathed a sigh of relief when Lydia Loveless finally released Daughter in 2020, and I was prepared to resurrect those same feelings for the newest project from Sarah Shook & the Disarmers – another project that’s been a long time coming. For a quick primer, I’d best describe their first two albums as something of a fusion between classic country and punk rock, and I’d also say they’re both awesome for being raw, unbridled, and extremely memorable projects with their fair share of highlights. In a just world they would have established some welcome momentum, but the band has moved on and found a home with Thirty Tigers, and that’s just as well for now. With that said, lead singer Sarah Shook was quick to point out how their newest project was something of an expansion from previous efforts, and I admit to usually having mixed feelings on that going into a project.
Still, in the spirit of moving on with artists, the least we can do is meet them halfway, which provides an interesting case study for Nightroamer as a whole. If I’m being honest, I wouldn’t say it’s on par with either Sidelong or Years, and while I do think some of the more experimental moments work, I’d also describe it as a weirdly long overdue transitional project with some potential for ideas moving forward, rather than a strong comeback. But when on a foundational level the writing and performances are still as solid and biting as ever, this is very much a project that fits within the band’s wheelhouse while forging a new path forward, and it’s worth the deep-dive to unpack it.
First, the biggest point of the debate: the instrumentation and production. In working with producer Pete Anderson, known for his work with Dwight Yoakam – in itself a full circle moment, given that the band has a song on their debut album named after the titular artist and that said artist has his own roots planted in old-school country and punk – it’s apparent right away just what Shook meant when they said the album would “open up their sound.”
And I wish I could say it sticks the landing more than it does. I’ll say right away that those moments are confined to a few tracks and don’t really define the entire album, which is a two-fold statement. On one hand, you’re still going to get some great country slow-burns in the title track and “It Doesn’t Change Anything” – particularly in how the pedal steel is meant to linger yet comes around to define the mix – and you’ll also get those hard-edged moments of bluster in “Talkin’ to Myself” or “Somebody Else.” But it also means that this is a project that tries its best to achieve something new in sonic scope and somewhat sacrifices consistency to get there.
And when actually digging into what those constitutes those changes on tracks like “If It’s Poison” or “Stranger,” it’s a move toward brighter retro-pop tones, of all things, just, you know, with rougher electric guitars supporting the mix. Again, to be fair, I get testing the waters, but the tonal choices often clash with one another – particularly in that jarring solo on the former track – and only rarely compliment the writing. And they often drown out Shook in the mix to try and get there anyway. The worst example is probably “I Got This,” which is kind of a mess; the percussion feels overmixed, and Shook’s higher register doesn’t really flatter the track. And considering the writing is still just as incendiary and explosive as ever as a whole on this album, I admit I did miss the more direct punk edges of their previous work to potentially give this more punch and immediacy.
With that said, there are moments that do work. I dig the dark, western-inspired gruff that opens “Somebody Else” and mimics a showdown in its own right through content that speaks to the perpetual edges of burn-out in a relationship and partners tearing one another down to nothing. And though I was initially put off by “Talkin’ to Myself” and am still not convinced it’s the best closing track for this album, I do enjoy the more playful groove and self-aware honesty in how Shook can’t provide closure to themself in finding the courage to move on from bad relationships and old flames.
And that’s the thing – while I can’t say the writing drills into the deepest levels of complex emotion that defined their previous works, this is still really damn potent as a whole. Even if I’m not onboard with some of the more experimental tendencies, I can’t deny that they don’t contribute to the album’s unsettled progression well. Shook is still an excellent writer capable of mining great introspection at their best, which is why I love “Somebody Else” as the opener, because it’s simultaneously a takedown of a flighty lover … and also a way for them to look at themself and question their own culpability in the downfall, or find the strength to pick up the pieces and move forward.
Now, it’s also in this department where I wish some of those past rougher edges were present to add a bit more bite in the mix beyond just Shook’s terrifically weathered, lived-in delivery. Beyond the more experimental cuts just not quite working in terms of tonal progression or presentation, I’d also argue that they’re the moments where the songwriting comes across as both less interesting and unique (although I’d also lump in the more straightforward honky-tonk number “No Mistakes” with this category). And maybe that’s just me loving how both the title track and “It Doesn’t Change Anything” come around midway through to turn that focus back inward and paint Shook as a victim of their own vices still figuring out how to love someone.
But I also get ending it on a track like “Talkin’ to Myself” where the entire focus is blowing away the veneer to reveal that they haven’t really found those answers yet. Sometimes the best one can do for now is go on their own soul-searching, night-roaming adventure to find what works best for them. It’s not the ending we want, but sometimes it’s the one we get. And on that note, even though I wouldn’t say this album places among their best, it’s also why I get opening the doors and exploring the possibilities in scope and idea in hopes for something more. And after four years, it’s just great to have a new project from this band, even though what comes next is even more potentially exciting.
- Favorite tracks: “Nightroamer,” “It Doesn’t Change Anything,” “Somebody Else,” “Talkin’ to Myself,” “Believer”
- Least favorite track: “I Got This”