'Oh pioneer, oh visionary, who spoil me for the ordinary!' It’s a line from Duke Special’s last album, Under the Dark Cloth, written to accompany a photographic exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
It’s also the starting point for the Lisburn-born performer’s latest album, Oh Pioneer, his first bona fide studio long-player since 2008’s I Never Thought This Day Would Come.
Not that the Duke has been idling his time away in the intervening period. His output has, if anything, bordered on the prolific, with a variety of collaborative projects including the magnificent set of songs he wrote for the National Theatre’s 2009 production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children.
Oh Pioneer finds Peter Wilson firmly back in singer-songwriter territory, reflecting on a period in his life that has been anything but ordinary. His music opens out in strikingly cosmopolitan fashion, absorbing the influences of his recent encounters with live theatre, silent film, photography, an unfinished Kurt Weil musical, and the documentary he made on Belfast singer, Ruby Murray.
The eleven songs on Oh Pioneer seem often to be wondering aloud where all this frenetic activity has left him. They are notably more thoughtful, reflective compositions than the hook-laden, flamboyantly colourful numbers that have hitherto been central to the Duke Special songbook.
‘Stargazers of the World Unite’, for instance, opens the album in an apparently innocuous groove of soft-shoe Caribbean shuffle. It's tempered, though, by imagery of escape, and a wistful uncertainty over whether that will eventually prove possible.
‘How am I gonna get myself to heaven?’ Wilson sings. Time was he seemed to know the answer to that question, but nowadays, he sounds less certain.
‘Little Black Fish’ probes deeper into the vein of gentle rumination opened up in ‘Stargazers’. Burbling marimba rhythms create a fretful undertow (has Wilson been checking out his Philip Glass while in the Big Apple?), fat bass resonances thickly anchoring the synthesised soundscape of Dave Lynch's darkly shadowed mix.
Again you note the spikes of disappointed experience insistently protruding through the music's typically sumptuous flow of surface melody. ‘There will be casualties,’ warns the Duke. ‘This time silence is not golden.’
Throughout Oh Pioneer it's notable how much electronica Wilson has used in layering the textures, compared to the plethora of acoustic instruments which are his usual go-to option instrumentally.
It's there in the plunging, ominous opening to ‘Condition’, a reflection on the wild extremes involved in 'being human'. Here the vocal mimics the chant-like recitation in John Lennon's ‘God’, synths pulsing like a subterranean heartbeat in the accompaniment.
Wilson's Ruby Murray experience surfaces in ‘Nothing Shall Come Between Us’, a waltz-time ballad with a strong traditional flavour to the melody. It's the album's only out-and-out love song, but even then it's love in recovery, flecked with oblique references to past desertion and possible infidelity.
Everywhere, of course, there is the Duke Special voice – pure-toned, clear as crystal, beguilingly lyrical. It’s perhaps never been more effectively balanced than on this new album, where a restrained, confessional style of delivery counterpoints with gentle poignancy the dark, pulsing swirl of a superlative Paul Pilot production.
As Oh Pioneer moves to its conclusion the theme of search for meaning in a world suddenly more full of questions than answers becomes ever more insistent.
Songs like the gorgeous mid-tempo ‘Lost Chord’ (‘Never thought I’d lose my way’), ‘My Lazy Saviour’ (‘I’m no longer what I used to be’), and ‘Always been there’ (‘I lost my only home’) persistently articulate the unsettled, questing nature of the album’s overall agenda.
Oh Pioneer is in many ways a less commercial record than, say, 2006’s irresistibly catchy Songs from the Deep Forest. There’s less boho quirkiness, fewer vaudeville decorations, more sustained seriousness of purpose. The old, apparently effortless gift for tuneful melody is still there, however. The Duke could, like Rossini, probably set a laundry list to music and still make it sound interesting.
In its honest examination of life’s tougher questions Oh Pioneer is a CD that will repay repeated listens. It’s undoubtedly Duke Special’s most personal record, an absorbing picture of the singer growing up in public. ‘I want the world to make some sense,’ he chants repeatedly at one point. Don’t we all Duke, don’t we all.
Oh Pioneer is released on June 18, 2012. Go to www.dukespecial.com for a free download of the single ‘Punch of a Friend’.