Song of the Week: “Desiree,” Sean Rowe

Click Here to Listen to “Desiree,” by Sean Rowe

You can’t argue that Sean Rowe has one of the most distinctive voices in music today. It is simultaneously mournful, reassuring, and smooth. Also it’s deep. Really deep. His timbre and register make his voice very well suited to the kind of darkly contemplative tunes he normally churns out.

“Desiree,” on his new album Madman, is a little different. Instead of a quiet lament, it’s an up-tempo number with soul leanings. There’s a warm, slightly fuzzy bass part, clean guitar, and the obligatory handclaps. And though it might veer a little close to pastiche, none of this feels put on.

This is, of course, because Rowe’s voice and the mournful lyric keep the song focused. The narrator has reached a complicated point at the end of a relationship—“in my head I say I wish you well/but from my tongue I say/Desiree”—and Rowe delivers it with the melancholy that it deserves.

And it’s this melancholy, juxtaposed with the upbeat instrumentals, that makes the song so clever. Because of his pitch and because of the backing on this track, Rowe echoes generations of smooth soul and R&B singers. Barry White jumps most readily to mind, and I don’t mean that as just a punch line. In this setting, Rowe’s big, deep voice echoes White’s, but Rowe’s depressive lyrics turn White’s formula for saccharine love songs firmly on their head. If White sang songs about the blossoming of a relationship, Rowe is singing about one gone rotten, with a sneering tip of the hat.