Mightmare: Cruel Liars  | ★★★★ | Kill Rock Stars; Oct. 14

As pandemic projects continue to start seeing the light of day, Cruel Liars—the eight-track debut from Mightmare—may prove itself to be one of the most rewarding, revealing new sides of Sarah Shook’s personality, both musical and otherwise.

With Nightroamer, their latest LP with the Disarmers, already recorded in early 2020 but awaiting a release under more favorable touring conditions, Shook spent the first year of the pandemic, in the wake of newfound sobriety, recording Cruel Liars nearly entirely on their own.

Shook—who’s begun using the first name River in personal and professional settings, including Mightmare’s promotional materials—built their musical identity as the country outlaw Sarah. For more than a decade, they’ve led a trio of fiery outfits leaning heavily on cow-punk and honky-tonk, but Mightmare finds Shook distancing themselves from those expected backgrounds by swapping their familiar twang for more adventurous textures.

Echoes of Shook’s high lonesome croon shade album opener “Come What May,” revealing early that they’d be ditching their familiar confines while casting their trademark vocals in a haunted setting accented by accordion and harp.

Eerie keyboards and an ominous drum loop set a brooding backdrop for the title track, which Shook matches by ruminating on how “love’s end descends us into hell” as layered harmonies heighten the intensity.

On the album’s penultimate track, Shook reveals a new kind of vulnerability. The breezy, lovestruck pop ditty “Easy” feels borderline giddy as they sing affirmations like “You deserve love, don’t you ever forget it” that contrast sharply with the rest of the album’s darker lyricism. Although a sharp contrast in terms of style, the sparse closer “Sure Thing” similarly finds Shook taking bigger risks, resulting in bigger payoffs.

There’s a twinge of twang marking lines that would fit neatly on a Disarmers record, as when the lyrics “Ain’t gonna be no memory gonna haunt me down tonight” are sung atop a somber piano and strings that are eventually joined by a propulsive programmed beat and electric guitar accents, heightening the drama.

Clocking in under a half hour, Cruel Liars doesn’t overstay its welcome. It feels like an intriguing taste of the new rewards to come if Shook continues to explore other musical avenues, no matter the name.

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