By Richard Marcus
River (Sarah) Shook’s Mightmare is a curious solo project—an outlet for songs that don’t necessarily fit within the punky Americana milieu of her primary band, The Disarmers. Written at home as the pandemic took hold, with Shook in the throes of early sobriety, Mightmare’s debut, Cruel Liars, (out today on Kill Rock Stars), is melodically delightful and thematically compelling.
A collection of introspective reflections on making peace with mental anguish, it continues peeling back the layers of Shook’s proverbial onion while veering off into new-to-them musical territory. Across just eight songs in barely 27 minutes, Shook manages to simultaneously capture both their restlessness and their fledgling release from its grip.
There’s definitely a pop element to Cruel Liars, but don’t let that cheat you out of experiencing its finer points; beneath the melodic exterior lies considerable depth. Shook performs everything on the album, save for Aaron Oliva’s bass on six of the eight tracks, accounting for what could be considered a sparse sound. Delicately plucked guitar patterns entwine with bits of electronica and carefully placed beats to create a sturdy sonic bed for Shook’s poetry. For touring purposes, Mightmare expands to a quartet, with Blake Tallent on guitar, Ash Lopez on bass, and Ethan Standard on drums.
Shook’s mesmerizing vocals are front and center, here, preserving a bit of The Disarmers’ twang and anchoring Cruel Liars with something tangible and familiar. Shook’s Appalachian-tinted howl creates a comforting space, matching a thematic undercurrent about alienation and the search for a sense of belonging that bobs and weaves through the entire album.
Thankfully, Cruel Liars sacrifices none of the ‘Sarah understands’ sensibility that has cobbled together such a devout fan base up to this point. There’s never any question: Shook knows what’s it like to be on the outside looking in, and it informs Mightmare’s music just as much (if not more so) than anything that’s come before. That they accomplish this so effectively in under a half hour attests to the strength of their sparse songwriting style—short, impressionistic lines that convey vivid images while implying larger truths. In short order, Shook delivers much food for thought.
Perhaps the closest thing to a pure pop song that they’ve ever written, “Easy” makes a great example of how Shook uses subtexts to create a wider vision of the truth. Initially singing about how easy it is to love someone (“It’s so easy to love you/ Beautiful dreams come true/ It’s so easy to love you“) they then pull the camera back for a wider, macro-view on the second verse: “If you reach for something’ you’re gonna to get it/And you deserve love, don’t you ever forget it.” In doing so, they take their own experience of loving acceptance and project it onto anyone listening that has felt unlovable. For trauma survivors in particular, Shook’s poppy love song doubles as a soothing balm.
Lines throughout the album stick out like signposts and embed themselves in your memory. “I threw your shit out in the yard” they croon in “Enemy,” a breakup song that touches on the childish cruelty we tend to inflict on one another as soured lovers. “Standing in the killing field, arrows in the stag” begins the title track with an arresting image of death (or is it meant as a triumphant conquering?), while “Red” seems to grapple with the spiritual conundrum of addiction as Shook laments the loss of more innocent times: “We used to be as thick as thieves/Barn swallows high in the old mill eaves/Back before this unholy disease… came a haunting.”
In the closing track, “Sure Thing”, Shook states, “Ain’t gonna be no memories gonna haunt me down tonight/Draw all the curtains tight,” warding off the encroaching, poisonous touch of the past and ending the album with the lines, “The room is dark and silent and I’m quieting my mind/Interlace my fingers tight til each one is entwined/Rearranged and redefined.”
Cruel liars may sometimes come to us in human form, but on Mightmare’s debut, Shook seems focused on the untruths generated in their own head via memory, perception, and addiction. Read along with the lyrics and you can’t help but dwell on the ways our minds lie to us about who we are, who we think we’re meant to be, and the disparities between the two. If Shook offers any solution, it might be in learning to silence those pesky inner voices, painful as the process can be.
Richard Marcus has been writing about music, films, and books since 2005. He’s published three books commissioned by Ulysses Press. He currently edits the Books section at Blogcritics.org and is a regular contributor to Qantara.de. He lives in Kingston, Ontario Canada with his feral accomplice and their cat.