“Surprise” is an appropriate title for the first song on Upstate New York-based singer-songwriter Sean Rowe’s debut Magic. You’ll probably be surprised by him, especially if your introduction to him was in a live setting, as it was for me when I saw a show he opened for The Handsome Family in December 2010. This somewhat rough-looking man of indeterminate but youngish age takes the stage with his acoustic guitar, and you think “another sensitive singer-songwriter.” But when he opens his mouth and sings that first line in his powerful, worn and craggy baritone, you sit up and take notice. The chattering hipsters in the back of the room suddenly quiet down and pay attention.
The effect isn’t as sharp on record, but it’s there just the same. The voice is in its own way as soulful as Van Morrison’s and Leonard Cohen’s, two singers and songwriters of an earlier generation to which Rowe (rhymes with cow, not with crow) is most frequently compared. His lyrics, which are called transcendental for the way he incorporates the natural world as a living entity, quite often remind me of Morrison and Cohen as well.
“Surprise,” that opening track, begins with lightly plucked guitars and a subtle wash of synthesized strings. Then that startling voice begins to sing, giving solidity to the poetic, romantic lyrics: “You were nothing but the fragrance of an old dream / that was just time playing tricks on my mind … I thought love was just a strip mall / Baby you are a surprise.”
The publicity sheet that came with Magic and the bio on his website hint at a troubled childhood, as do his lyrics. “Night” seems a remembrance of some sort of tragedy between a father and son, while “Wet” sketches the anger, frustration and restlessness of a young man trying to protect an abused mother. “Jonathan” tells in first person a nightmarish violent incident of some kind, the music menacing rock reminiscent of Neil Young’s “Ambulance Blues.”
The album as a whole deals with themes of life and death, love and disappointment and hope, often in dark language. The shuffling rocker “Wrong Side of the Bed” is the most Cohen-esque of them all, full of religious imagery and unexpected lyrical twists and turns: “I gotta exorcize those demons before they’re on to me / I gotta take this darkness out for a ride.” And in “Old Black Dodge” a driver encounters a mysterious female in a menacing scenario similar to “Riders on the Storm.” “She said hey kid I don’t bite / but if you wanna see dark / get out of the light.”
In an only slightly lighter moment, “The Walker” puts us inside the head of a homeless person or just someone outside of society who sustains himself with that society’s castoffs and detritus — as good a metaphor for the life of an artist as I’ve seen: “While everybody thinking themselves to death I just use my hands.” “The Long Haul” is a wry song of a man surprised by love: “Love kicked my head and took down my name / What happened?”
The emotional center of the album is “American,” a meditation on what it means to be a man in America today. “Eden’s been stolen / chopped up and leased / and her heart hits the market / before it can bleed.”
Although Rowe quite easily holds a room alone with his guitar, he has some welcome backing on Magic. Cello and double bass add somber notes to several songs, piano and electric guitars fill in the background, drums bump up the rhythm on a few tracks and the tension on others, and a couple of different female singers add harmonies here and there. Wisely, producer Troy Pohl never lets the instruments get in the way of the songs.
If the world has room for one more rugged but romantic singer-songwriter, it’s Sean Rowe. This guy has something to say, and he does it in a quietly powerful way.