Album Review: Duke Special – Look Out Machines!

By on Tuesday, 14th April 2015 at 12:00 pm
 

Duke Special Look Out Machines coverDuke Special, aka Northern Irish songwriter Peter Wilson, has just unveiled his fourth studio album ‘Look Out Machines!’ via his second PledgeMusic campaign, which funded the album release as well as benefitting De Paul Ireland. On first listen, the album’s title struck me as a bit incongruous. ‘Look Out Machines!’ relies heavily on synthesised instrumental effects to achieve its dramatic and expansive sound, yet its overall effect is one of overwhelming human emotion. I haven’t quite worked out the puzzle behind that, but it is an interesting juxtaposition nevertheless.

Duke Special’s previous music has occasionally had a vaudevillian caricature quality to it, but with this new album, Wilson has evolved into a more serious and dramatic musical theatre sound. ‘Look Out Machines!’ shows the influence of his recent projects in that genre, including a production of Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Mother Courage and Her Children’ for the London National Theatre in 2009 and the completion of an unfinished musical by Kurt Weill.

The music on ‘Look Out Machines!’ is ambitious in terms of harmony and orchestration, but still maintains a basic pop accessibility. Grounded in melody and always fundamentally tied to Wilson’s eloquent lyrics, every song on the album centers around a memorable chorus. In opening track ‘Wingman’, the repeated line “oh my weightlessness, oh my restlessness” is gracefully expressed in the song’s instrumental arrangement, with ethereally soaring strings and backing vocals countering the ominous bass ostinato and percussion. ‘Step to the Magical’ contains the curious title phrase in its catchy chorus, between verses describing a mystical kaleidoscopic female: “spinning now, her skirts in circles, beautiful her carefree purpose”.

Thematically, the songs on ‘Look Out Machines!’ seem to address the end of a relationship, possibly the end of a love affair. But along with sadness and grief, there is also a sense of newfound freedom and optimism. The title track talks about overcoming “oppression of the heart”, particularly in the lyrical refrain “what’s gone is gone, so drop the bomb / this is a new world, this is a new world”. The album’s first quiet moment comes in the elegant and understated ‘Statues’, where the sense of poignant stillness is drawn out in the piano melody and shimmering percussion as Wilson theatrically intones the line “there will one day come a time, your name won’t shiver down my spine”.

A constant sense of deep internal conflict runs through the heart of the album, but Wilson doesn’t attempt to bring it to a neat resolution. His lyrics on outstanding track ‘In a Dive’ patently state “certainty’s a city I decided I should leave”, yet the music feels determined and assured. The edgy ‘Son of the Left Hand’ bravely faces an ominous feeling of anticipation in its chorus, “My body rebels / angel or devil, I never could tell / maybe I’m meant for the clutches of Hell / here I stand, son of the left hand.” Previously featured singles ‘Elephant Graveyard’ and ‘Nail on the Head’ are similarly evocative of unresolved anguish. Despite that, the album ends with a sense of calm acceptance and forward motion with the gentle strings and echoing chorus of ‘Domino’: “one thing leads into another, row on row / this hollow tree still needs a brother”.

‘Look Out Machines!’ is a powerful change of direction for Duke Special, informed by the depth and breadth of his work outside the solo artist realm. Musically expansive and exquisitely personal, the album’s immediacy demands attention and opens its listener’s ears for a myriad of future possibilities.

8/10

Duke Special’s fourth studio album ‘Look Out Machines!’ is available now via Stranger Records. Duke Special is currently on tour in the UK in support of the album; previous TGTF coverage of Duke Special is right this way.

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