At Christmas, Emma bought herself and I tickets to see Duke Special play at Nottingham’s Glee Club on the 12th March. It was a seated acoustic night with Peter Wilson (ie Duke Special) sat at the piano playing songs and talking with the audience. It showcased what a wonderfully talented, as well as genuinely lovely, man he is and was an evening you couldn’t help but enjoy. It was the 6th or 7th time I had seen him live, and one of the reasons I could quite easily see him another 6 or 7 times is because of how different every gig is. I’ve seen him with an orchestra of 7, or one of 3, I’ve seen him by himself and I’ve seen him headline festivals. I’ve even had the pleasure of meeting him twice in one night. He’s truly mesmerising live, and his piano skills are better than most in pop music these days.
The reason for his gig at the Glee club was the release of a new album, Look Out Machines!. As expected, the evening contained many new songs as well as old ones and covers. Duke is an artist who covers a lot of songs, whilst always putting his own spin on them. My favourite is his version of Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart, although he didn’t play it! There were 8 new songs played, 5 covers and 4 old ones from what I (and setlist.fm) remember, although there might have been more. I was going to review it, like I’ve been doing with all of our other gigs but I wanted to wait to hear the new songs properly and be able to talk about them with confidence before doing it. Following the release of the album on the 6th April, I just never got around to it.
So here goes: Duke was enthralling that night. From the moment he walked on and started playing a new song, Elephant Graveyard, you could tell the audience were going to love the night. He explained the motives behind each of his new songs in detail, wanting us to get a feel for why he wrote the song and not just hear the music. At one stage he asked the audience to request songs from his back catalogue, which led to welcome renditions of Portrait, Brixton Leaves and Wanda. All of his old songs were taken from his first album (except Wanda, from Hector Mann) and all his new ones were played on the piano with no accompanying instruments, except Elephant and Son of the Left Hand, leading me to believe that his new album would be similar to his first, undoubtedly his best. It was impossible not to walk away satisfied that night. We had seen a truly talented musician, playing music he believed in and covered songs he loved. There was no pretence, no falseness – he was glad to be able to play to an audience where most knew and loved him without assuming it was always going to happen. Unknown artists are always the best to see live because it’s when music is at it’s purest. Music wouldn’t evolve without artists like Duke Special.
I was wrong in my initial assumption regarding the album. Rather than an album based mainly around Duke and the piano, which was what I had expected following the gig, a lot of the songs have his band playing with him. That aspect is similar to his second and third studio albums, however works much better than either of them did. He hasn’t written a bad album, it’s just this one is much better than anything since Songs From The Deep Forest, his debut attempt. Why is it more advanced? For me, it’s as simple as saying the songs are better and he’s clearly experimented in adding some different styles into his songs. For example, the rise in mood of Wingman following the second chorus was never something I expected to hear on a Duke Special record. One thing that remains constant throughout is his voice, at it’s best haunting and always beautiful, the strong Northern Irish tones add so much. Even in his voice, his staple, he finds room to experiment with his vocal range – something that, having seen the songs live, definitely works.
I’ve seen Duke Special headline Greenbelt festival; a collection of Christian artists and it’s no secret that Duke is a religious man. This isn’t really a surprise, given his Belfast upbringing however as he mentioned at the Glee Club, there is a level of indifference growing highlight in In a Dive’s “Jesus and his blood don’t mean so much anymore … don’t get me wrong it isn’t that I don’t believe”. In a Dive is written about how he’s being turned away by Belfast’s reputation as the Bible Belt of Europe but also how he finds beautiful and profound qualities in the most unlikely of places. Step To The Magical, the song before, draws on that latter theme and is written about a woman walking through busy streets, helping strangers and leaving the world a better place. Duke joined forces with former Snow Patrol guitarist, Iain Archer to write Elephant Graveyard, about the myth that elephants know where to go when they are going to die, how they all flock to a holy or mystical place to die. As usual, religion plays a huge part. Rounding off this section would be Son of the Left Hand, written about how being left-handed was seen as being a curse for many years.
That isn’t to say the whole album is based around religious themes, and they aren’t so obvious as to suffocate you. There is no preaching to Jesus here, as usual Duke deals with his religion in a non-pushy and approachable way. In many ways, he’s what all religious people should be – inspired by it but not forcing it down others throats. There are songs about how certain people can always get through to you, even if you don’t want to hear it, songs about never being alone and Statues is a love song, simple as. He meant every song to be positive and full-of-hope, well for me he succeeded. You can feel the hope, the optimism and the belief of future success in every song, which means the album becomes very listenable and easy to get lost in.
I’m finding it very difficult to criticise it. There isn’t a weak song; there isn’t a duff note. Son of the Left Hand was my favourite song immediately upon hearing it, and that hasn’t changed. Step to the Magical has been stuck in my head many times in the two months I’ve owned the album while Wingman might just be the best song he’s written in years. Nail on the Head, In a Dive and Statues all show Duke doing what he does best. The first half of the album is the best of all his previous efforts. The only reason I still rate Songs From higher is because the second half doesn’t contain Salvation Tambourine and Last Night I Nearly Died. Look Out Machines, Stepping Stones and Domino are good songs in their own right, not quite matching the heights of those previous but still demanding listens.
The more I listen to Look Out Machines!, the more I fall in love with it. To describe it as a grower would be unfair though, as it immediately grabbed my attention. It’s an album that has come at the right time. The messages of hope resound within me, the easy music makes it difficult to listen to something else and Duke’s voice keeps you captivated. It contains enough of his quirks (unfortunately no gramophone that I noticed), highlighted on Tweed Coats as the background sounds are simply him walking around Eastbourne. It contains incredibly catchy elements (pre-chorus for Nail “I rattled the walls as I ran through the halls, screamed every word that I knew”) and moments where you can feel how much emotion he’s put into this album. But none of that is what makes it so special. It could be a dreadful album and still be special for it was completely fan funded. Gigging is how Duke makes his living and it’d be easy to look at the established artists and say musicians have it easy but for people like him, albums can only be produced through the generosity of fans, essentially strangers. Obviously they chose that career path, however like I’ve said music won’t evolve without artists like Duke Special and it’s up to us make sure they don’t die out. Buy Look Out Machines!, I assure you that you won’t regret it.
- Wingman – 9/10
- Elephant Graveyard – 7/10
- Step to the Magical – 8/10
- In a Dive – 8/10
- Statues – 7/10
- Son of the Left Hand – 10/10
- Look Out Machines – 6/10
- Nail on the Head – 8/10
- Tweed Coats – 6/10
- Stepping Stones – 6/10
- Domino – 6/10
Album rating: 7.5/10 (Excellent)
Note: I took most of the information about the writing of the album from here, it’s a review worth reading as it’s from the Horses’ mouse, the Duke himself.