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The Secular Psalms of Sean Rowe

September 24, 2014


A madman is one who is disconnected from reality and therefore detached from himself.  A madman is incapable of reflecting on the real world, the complexity of the human person, the weakness of will, the beauty of noble friendship, and the surprise of love.  So although his third record – released last week – is entitled Madman, Sean Rowe is anything but mad.  Granted, Rowe (which rhymes with “how” or “cow”) may look to be out of his mind while pounding on his worn guitar and howling through his gritty John the Baptist beard, only a clear-eyed man could have made this record.

Madman is not a random collection of songs – it’s what is traditionally known as a concept album.  The tracks work together and build on one another like chapters in a book.  There is a general theme of journey or pilgrimage, but the road, like real life, is filled with all sorts of twists and temptations.  However, amidst the perilous parts of the journey, there is light and hope.  Like the 150 psalms of the Psalter, the 12 tracks Madman cover the gamut of human emotion and experience.  Rowe’s psalms may be secular, but they’re not profane. 

The title track begins with a confident confession: “You can call me a madman/ but I’m spoken for/ You can take my possessions/ leaves me an open door.”  The narrator is a hero of the counter-culture, finding his freedom in material poverty.  As the song builds so does the temptation of the city, which stands as a metaphor for modern distraction: “And the city has a way just to make you forget/ about all the stuff you love and things you don’t know yet/ about the space that’s left where nobody talks/ about the quiet on the street where nobody walks.”  Like Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name,” Rowe too is set on a mission, journeying to a mysterious place that will eventually transform him.

“Shine My Diamond Ring” is to Madman what the Penitential Rite is to the Catholic Mass, complimented by keys and horns that remind the listener of New Orleans.  Rowe’s narrator struggles with the reality that he can’t get himself clean and wash away his own sorrow.  Desperately his sings, “Shine my diamond ring/ take my suffering/ save my baby from the cold.”  The music is tight and quick and nervous, desperate for some sort of redemption, which, often true to life, doesn’t come right away.

Rowe’s first two albums Magic (2009) and The Salesman and the Shark (2012) were instrumentally sparse compared to Madman.  So if you’ve listened to Rowe before, “Desiree” will catch you off guard.  Musically “Desiree” is bright, punchy and strangely reminiscent of disco.  (I actually tried the Travolta finger point “to the ground, then the air” to the beat, and it worked.)  Lyrically, however, “Desiree” is a sad tale of a man with a divided will.  On one hand, the character knows that Desiree (an obvious play on desire) is bad for him: “I know I must be right/ you’ve stolen all the light/ you’re a killer and a con/ I cannot understand/ for my love you gave me sand/ and a rope to hang me on.”  But there’s another part of him that doesn’t want to let go: “In my head I say/ I wish you well/ but from my tongue I say/ Desiree… do not go away!”  Rowe’s narrator sounds like Augustine in Book Eight of the Confessions, a pitiable man with a divided heart, having the hardest time letting go.

Sean Rowe has the kind of voice that causes fear and comfort at the same time.  His bass-baritone vocal is so deep and rich that it’s what I imagine God the Father’s voice sounded like when I was a kid.  But at the same time, his voice has such powerful resonance and tone that it brings unexpected comfort and calm.  On “The Game” Rowe sings to the road-weary traveler who longs for rest.  Rowe begins with a nonsensical and hypnotic “Oh Ma-ma-ma-mey,” which is the soul of the song, literally animating it.  The lyrics follow a very specific pattern – a description of a present struggle or conflict, followed by an invitation to find rest.  Rowe sings, “You can act against the part/ or you can come on in and lay it down/ You can stumble in the dark/ You can act against the part/ Or you can come on it an lay it down.”  “The Game” is actually an invitation to rest, and it’s an attractive invitation. 

One of Rowe’s musical influences is Bruce Springsteen, and he takes a play out of Springsteen’s book on “The Drive” as the narrative is situated in a car, and more specifically, in the driver’s mind.  (A very subtle and creative aspect of this song is that if you listen close, in the first couple of seconds sound Rowe’s guitar sounds like a car starting.)  It’s one of the quieter songs on the record, and the soft sound compliments the lyrics.  The narrator is on a quest, and he knows what he’s searching for.  When he finds her he sings, “Pulling slowly/ in her driveway/ See my baby/ coming my way.”    In some ways, “The Drive” is a sort of resolution to the previous track, “The Game” as the invitation to rest is accepted.  And if that’s true, then the next track, “Spiritual Leather” is a petition for perseverance in love: “Oh the road is long/ and wider than forever/ I hope we’re that strong/ Spiritual Leather.” 

“Done Calling You” may be another song about Desiree, the dangerous character we met earlier on this record.  Once again, Rowe’s protagonist has got himself in a bad way and he knows it, yet he’s having the hardest time making a break.   Over a dirty blues riff Rowe sings, “Been two days and a month/ I never give up/ You got me drinking your booze/ in a broken cup/ Oooooh Babe/ I’m done calling you.”  But the truth is, he’s really not sure if he is done calling.  He wants to be, but it’s as if he’s trying to convince himself, more than he wants to convince her.  Once again, Rowe presents the divided will. 

In addition to Springsteen, Leonard Cohen has also been a major influence on Sean Rowe.  With his biblical baritone Rowe can sound a lot like Cohen – especially when he plays “Suzanne” during his live sets – but he can write like Cohen as well, as he does on “The Real Thing,” which is eerily reminiscent of Cohen’s “The Future.”  Both songs prophetically remind the listener about the dangers of complacency and warn of things to come, real things.

The lyrical masterpiece of Madman is “Razor of Love.”  It could stand alone as a poem, and since the musical accompaniment is so minimal, in a way it does.  Rowe sings: “So you reach for the past but it melts like the snow/ damn decisions that follow you everywhere that you go/ you made your mistakes/ there’s no pill to take/ just some water.”  Much of the time I think Rowe is writing in character, but this track seems to be autobiographical. Rowe is married with two young children and this song sounds like the sort of thing a husband would say to his wife: “The evening is toast and restless and board/ and the kids are medieval but we’re not the Lords/ But I cannot imagine if we didn’t have them/ I love you.” 

Speaking of children, the next track on the album “My Little Man” is no doubt about Rowe’s son – I’ve heard him play it live and introduce it as such.  It’s strange to hear such a big burly man making himself so vulnerable by singing a song so tender, but it works because it’s true.  Rowe is surprised by the love that he feels for his boy: “I can’t say I planned it/ I flew forever just to land it/ My religious devotion/ I can’t pretend to understand it/ Everybody has a notion/ but someday you will know who I am/ My little man.”  With the accordion accompaniment, it makes for an unexpected lullaby.  

The last two tracks on Madman cover a lot of ground.  On the futuristic “Looking for the Master” Rowe reminds his listener as well as himself of the necessity of seeing the world and the self clearly: “Without a key/ without some thirsty remorse/ without a heart/ that puts the body back on course/ The house is empty/ The windows are black/ Nobody sleeps tonight.”  It’s a call to repentance. 

Finally, Rowe brings the record to a close with “It Won’t Be Long” which could be addressed to a lover or to God himself.  Rowe sings it like a hymn: “Shelter me/ And though I’ve denied/ Hear me now/ as I cry/ It won’t be long.”  It could be a cry from an old man on his deathbed or a young man desiring redemption. It doesn’t matter – both long for new life, as we all do.    

Sean Rowe isn’t signed to a major label, and he doesn’t travel the country in a big tour bus and play arenas.  However, Anti-Records signs some great talent, touring the country with your family in a van is pretty cool, and Rowe’s music is perfect for clubs and house concerts, which is why he’s currently on the road, playing both.

Rowe knows he’s not a madman. After one listen to this record, you’ll know too.