A quick glance at the last few years in the musical life of Duke Special reveal an artist who embraces the eclectic and defies predictable career paths (as much as such a thing can be said to exist in the music industry).
Over the last half decade, the dreadlocked troubadour has undertaken musical projects based on the photography of Strand, Stielglitz and Steichen for the New York Met (‘Under the Dark Cloth’); written a concept album based on a Paul Auster novel and recorded by Steve Albini (‘The Silent World of Hector Mann’); crafted shows based on the music of Harry Nilsson and Belfast legend Ruby Murray; collaborated with Clannad; and even had the time for a sideline in DJing: establishing his Gramophone Club.
After all that, his latest album, ‘Look Out Machines’ seems a little bit conventional. There’s no highbrow concept of cross-media experimentation here, just a solid collection of tunes from a hugely imaginative and original singer-songwriter.
‘Look Out Machines’ dives right into the personal, charting a series of moments of spiralling introspection. What are no doubt a series of highly personal events become coded in lyrics that are often abstract, but rarely fail to convey a profound sense of an artist bearing his soul. Nothing is made obvious, but there still remains something highly moving about the 11 tracks gathered here.
While the album is much more of a return into pure piano-based songwriter mode of Special’s earlier releases, there is a definite degree of musical reinvention going on here too. Several tracks adopt an electronic flavour in the form of synthesised backing beats. Son of the Left Hand practically goes full Depache Mode with its pulsating build up to a big catchy chorus, but never forgoes the thing that makes Mr Special special. By bringing the song’s huge energy down to his level, rather than attempting to rise to meet it, Special sounds simultaneously anthemic and intimate, without any obvious disparity.
Likewise Step to the Magical practically dances along to a delicious beat, driving along joyfully rousing lyrics like “Step to the magical/ and let the world surprise us/ repaint the ordinary/ in the colours of our own devices.”
Nail on the Head tries something similar, but doesn’t quite ring as true. The off-beat, yet hooky rhythm strains a little hard to be quirky, with the nice little musical buried nuggets within failing to coalesce to a coherent whole.
Fortunately this new, electro-pop driven sound, isn’t overdone. Special does return to some more traditional stripped back, haunting piano numbers too, and these are where the album’s true beauty lies. Statues fades in and out with a silky ripple of delicate piano notes, while Special practically whispers the lyrics “I don’t wanna get over you/ but the ground is wearing thin/ I have stood here so long/ they’ll put a statue where I’ve been”.
Tweed Coat is even more stripped back, with nothing but a naked tinkling of keys and barely audible sampling of street sounds. The deftly formed lyrics (“I’m tired of the stagnant strains/ which trickle down the wall like chains/ and bubble under flower print sheets/ unraveling around my feet”) form a vivid impression rather than painting a literal picture, leaving the listener plenty of space to ruminate long after the song has ended.
‘Look Out Machines’ has a couple of missteps, but even these don’t really make the album any less of a delight to listen to. Calling an act unique is a bit of a cliché, but if anybody has earned that description it is Duke Special. ‘Look Out Machines’ is proof of that. It is a document from an imaginative and sensitive songwriter, who is able to craft tunes that are at once soft, soothing and unobtrusive, yet at the same time cut right into the listener and endure in the mind for long after the record has stopped spinning.
‘Look Out Machines!’ was released on 3 April on Stranger Records. Duke Special plays Mandela Hall, Belfast, on Friday 15 May; and Vicar Street, Dublin on Saturday 16 May.