Sean Rowe is a 30-something musician plying his trade in the American gothic of Tom Waits, Johnny Cash and Nebraska-era Bruce Springsteen, and with recent pictures of Rowe showing him as a bearded, grizzled chap sporting a porkpie hat, he’s every bit the urban backwoodsman. Where it gets a little more interesting than usual is that Rowe indulges in what he calls “naturalisticism”, which apparently involves a life of hunting/gathering, and tracking – must be hard to keep that up when you’re living in New York and playing dingy clubs all across North America and Europe.
As I approached writing about Rowe’s new hit-and-miss record, Magic, I had in the back of my mind the recent well-deserved critical savaging this website bestowed upon Jad Fair. I know that TLOBF is all about the love of music, so I’ve chosen to try and focus on the positives – at the back of my mind, though, gnaws away a little doubt that says “sometimes the lyrics on this record are really bad”.
Before we touch on those lyrics, let’s find the positives. While he may be in thrall to his heroes (Tom Waits is also on the roster of ANTI- Records), Rowe clearly means it, and there’s a passion to his music. He’s got a great lived-in baritone voice which does recall the aforementioned heroes, and the playing on the record is excellent. The connection with nature does spill over into his music, and one could imagine this record being brought together over a roaring fire in a log cabin somewhere remote.
Lyrically, though, is where it often comes undone. Take, for example, album opener ‘Surprise’, a frosty ballad in which Rowe croons: “You’ve escaped from all the pictures I remember / and come back as a bottle of wine”, then “I thought love was just a strip mall / but baby, you are a surprise”. I mean, the sentiment is lovely, but those lyrics just make me wince. It’s like someone handed Rowe a Tom Waits primer and he simply noted the major leitmotifs: Wine – check. Woman – check. Love as cold inanimate object – check.
Having said that, the next two tracks are terrific; ‘Time to Think’ is a jazzy lament, and ‘Night’ a lovely mournful dirge showing that Rowe does have talent. ‘Jonathan’ picks up the pace, a bluesy rocker telling a dark story of a stolen and burned-out car, and ‘Old Black Dodge’ with its Leonard Cohen vibe is also a fine track.
Things go awry again, though, with ‘Wet’. This could be a beautiful song, drenched as it is in gorgeous cello, dedicated to a mother from her son, but it’s let down by such clichés as “you don’t need to cut your life on those razor blades / or kitchen knives / you are beautiful”. ‘The Walker’, is a delightful duet that actually does offer the affecting “Oh, I’m not up to much / I’m just walking around”, a paean to throwing away time on the small things in life.
The rest of the record fades away rather disappointingly, meaning that the promise Rowe shows in some of his songs is left largely unfulfilled on what’s only a half-good album. Yes, some of the lyrics leave a lot to be desired, but his soulful baritone is lovely and there’s a haunting charm to many of the songs. Magic is perhaps an example of trying just a little too hard to be like your heroes, when it might have been better for Rowe to focus on his own talent.