Sean Rowe writes vivid, lived-in songs and sings them with a voice that reverberates through your bones. No one sounds like he does, and when you hear the first few notes of a Sean Rowe song, you know you’re about to have your heart ripped out of your chest and unceremoniously handed back to you — in the best way.
Which is why the first single off his new album, The Darkness Dressed in Colored Lights, titled “Little Death,” was so wondrously perplexing. From its opening notes — up-tempo, driving percussion and an airy piano melody — to its message about dusting yourself off and getting back to it, “Little Death” seemed to promise something optimistic. With a jaunty rhythm, Rowe sings:
I’m gonna write a song
Gonna call my friends
Gonna fall in love with the road again…
Fix that sorry shape I’m in
It is the best-case scenario for a musician coming out of an 18-month forced hiatus, a hopeful bit of motivation and positivity. But upon closer inspection, Rowe is roiling with uncertainty and the fear of regret. The songs on this record tell a story of heartbreak purgatory, of knowing intrinsically that it’s too late to save what you’ve got, but trying like hell anyway. “A little death doesn’t kill us after all,” he concludes in the very same tune, seeming to remove the dark veil from this sliver of sunshine.
But he continues to mine the messiness of trying to start anew after a relationship’s brutal end with the powerful ballad “What Are We Now,” which lives gorgeously in the in-between. Rowe knows what’s coming but tries to stay present anyhow, here and on the slinky groove “Rabbit Hole,” in which he can’t stop chasing something he won’t ever catch.
The Darkness Dressed in Colored Lights is about the chaos that comes when your life is upended, then learning who you are when you emerge on the other side of it. Fleeting affairs (“Squid Tattoo”), fantasies of what could be (“I Won’t Run”), foregone conclusions (“Toast”), and self-destructive patterns (“Honey in the Morning”) line these textured arrangements of synth, pedal steel, keys and horns. And for all the tragedy residing in these stories, Rowe knows it’s better to feel it all than to go numb.
On standout “To Make it Real,” Rowe’s growl becomes a wail, and he glows in this higher register. In it, he scrubs away any pretensions and finds there is something lovely to behold amidst all the turmoil. “When you lose at love / when you lose your mind,” he sings, “Well then oh my god / you’ll make it real.” To be fraught, Rowe seems to say, is to grow.