Yes, Sean Rowe once spent a spell living off the land, as a naturalist for nearly a month. Yes, Sean Rowe has an incredibly evocative baritone that slightly recalls each member of songwriting’s unholy trinity (Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits) as well as the Man in Black. Yes, his debut record Magic was excellent; and yes, The Salesman and the Shark somehow manages to top it. Pulling from those experiences, sensibilities, and influences, it’s easy to see why Rowe chose to record this record as organically as possible. The Salesman and the Shark winds up with a gorgeous ebb and flow as well as an undeniably natural sound that suits Rowe’s personality perfectly.
It’s a record that has immediate pull with the opening of “Bring Back the Night”, which is reminiscent to how the Band used to open their songs; a sprinkling of instruments appearing and re-appearing in sensibly disjointed fashion, as if each musician is merely settling in for a lengthy session, adding to the atmosphere before any vocal performance can drive it home. Then, of course, Rowe’s attention-demanding baritone kicks in and sweeps you off your feet. Having a distinct voice can both be a blessing and a curse. To some listeners, the voice will serve as a distraction and give them ample ammunition to attempt to derail the band if their music and lyrics aren’t spectacular enough to nullify it. This is where those kind of detractors will hit some major stumbling blocks because Rowe delivers both lyrically and instrumentally in elegant fashion.
His prowess as a lyricist and songwriter is evident throughout the first three tracks, “Bring Back the Night”, “Flying”, and “The Lonelymaze”, including lines like, “It hit me so hard, I could not see that shot was only meant for me” and instrumentals so gorgeous and well-constructed that it takes several listens through to give each instrument its deserved attention. However, that opening passage does set a particularly somber tone that’s only elevated by Rowe’s vocals and for a while it seems like The Salesman and the Shark will only delve into progressively darker territory as it moves slowly along. Then, “Joe’s Cult” evaporates any worries about that being the case.
The Tom Waits angle with “Joe’s Cult” really comes to life, as it borrows its pace, tempo and percussion tricks from Waits’ excellent “Jockey Full of Bourbon”. Yet “Joe’s Cult” has a few tricks of its own which saves it from feeling like a complete retread and, more importantly, is good enough to stand alongside “Jockey Full of Bourbon” instead of merely existing in its shadow. It also serves as a firecracker that detonates to wipe away some of the overcast beginning to completely envelop the record. “Signs” restores the meditative pace and almost seems like a reset for the record at the outset but then it settles in to itself after a beautiful piano figure emerges at the songs mid-section and transforms the song into something that wouldn’t have been out of place on Field Report’s excellent debut from this year.
After the wonderfully restrained expansion of “Signs” comes “The Wall”, which features various crescendo’s instead of one as well as a gentle female vocal to offset Rowe’s powerfully gruff one. “The Ballad of Buttermilk Falls” offers some of the same tricks as “The Wall” but uses the female vocals as texture instead of a focal point. Around this point is where the pace of The Salesman and the Shark begins to emerge as somewhat of a problem, which isn’t helped by back-to-back songs featuring a similar structure on an otherwise inventive record. “Horses” then proceeds to kick up dust at precisely the right moment, galloping towards an explosive ending while allowing itself to fall into various moments of silence. It’s a thrilling track that renews interest in The Salesman and the Shark when an explosive burst was needed most.
Some of the record’s silence and gray tones re-emerge with the ensuing track, “Old Shoes”, though it stands as one of the best songs on The Salesman and the Shark. “Old Shoes” also features a few peaks and valleys of slowly unfurling instrumentals that only get better as they reappear. “Downwind” then comes out like a stray dog, featuring some of the same percussive tricks from “Joe’s Cult” and delightful 1960s pop and surf influences that fit into Rowe’s palette surprisingly well. Coming so quickly after “Horses”, it could have easily been a victim of sequencing but is more than strong enough to emerge as an outstanding record highlight, with an unexpectedly ferocious guitar solo to close it out and seal the deal.
“Thunderbird” loses some of its impact in the wake of such a powerful moment and displays another prominent influence on both the record and Rowe that was relatively veiled up to this point: Bruce Springsteen. There’s a stripped-back, honest, incredibly American approach to the way both men present their songs and it fits their music incredibly well. While “Thunderbird” isn’t in the same category as Springsteen’s best, it’s still an early indicator that Rowe could be in this for the long haul. The Salesman and the Shark comes to a close with perhaps its most delicate slow song “Long Way Home” which is little more than piano, vocals, and a subtle orchestral section. It’s a lovely moment to bring an incredibly strong record to a very satisfying end.