“You can call me a madman/But I’m spoken for”, sings Sean Rowe on the title track of his latest record Madman, and immediately we are pulled in by that deep, stirring voice that’s unlike anything else. Folk mastermind Rowe is an artist that continues to surprise and intrigue listeners with every new record, and Madman is no exception. It’s another brilliant entry into his collection of powerful roots music, and it covers so much new ground that we can be certain Rowe is unstoppable.
Sean Rowe’s voice is one you won’t soon forget after you hear it for the first time, and he makes fascinating use of it on Madman. From the groovy “whoas” of “Madman” to the trembling sass of “Shine My Diamond Ring”, the cavernous depths of his vocals are endless and one of a kind. Madman is a bluesier record than anything we’ve heard from Rowe yet, and he delves into that sound so fully and so thoughtfully. “Shine My Diamond Ring” is pulsating and wild, with throbbing electric guitar, tinkling piano, and a surprisingly frenzied horn solo. It’s layered and fiercely played, almost intimidatingly so.
One of the most standout moments on the record is the R&B, funk-centric “Desiree”. It goes to a place we’d never expect from Rowe and features more of those vibrant horns to which we were treated earlier. But his voice is the true star of this track, confidently smooth and sexy, especially when he scats just before the grand finale. Right off the bat, it might not seem like a likely fit for Rowe’s folksier sensibilities, but he fills it to the brim with soul and leaves us picking our jaws up off the dance floor.
“The Drive” is a dark and heartbreaking slow-burn in the same vein as one of his past best, “Wet”. It builds so hauntingly with faint piano, until it breaks into a lush harmony with sweeping orchestral strings that envelop you so fully, like a dream. There’s a unique quality that comes with the combination of his dramatically masculine voice mixed with such a pretty, ethereal instrumental arrangement, and it’s something you’ll want over and over again.
In addition to the soul, blues, R&B and gospel that make up Madman, there’s still some of that stark man-with-a-guitar folk music that’s been Rowe’s signature. “Spiritual Leader” is one such song, and its simplicity is what makes it so special. While it’s thrilling to hear all that Rowe can do, it’s also so comforting to hear him with little accompaniment. He needs no frills, and songs like this one, and like the moving ode to his son “My Little Man” remind us of that.
Madman might easily be Rowe’s best work yet. He’s an artist with limitless potential, and he’s never predictable. Madman feels so lovingly put together from start to finish, and considering how hard it may have seemed to top his last record The Salesman and the Shark, we can rest assured he isn’t an artist that can be pinned down. Just listen to the manic quirk of “Looking for the Master” and you’ll be hooked, waiting with bated breath for whatever it is Rowe’s got waiting up his sleeve next.