Look Out Machines!

Duke Special goes electro on captivating new studio album, his most personal to date, propelled by synths and marked by a romantic, optimistic lyricism

It’s been almost three years since Duke Special, aka Peter Wilson, released his last studio album, Oh Pioneer (Adventures in Gramophone), but the wait for the follow-up has been worth it.

The Lisburn-born singer-songwriter returns with 11 instantly appealing songs that strike emotional chords as lush melodies seep into the subconscious. These songs of love and loss, of searching for meaning and direction, are all related in the first person, making Look Out Machines! Wilson’s most personal recording to date.

That said, all the songs carry co-writing credits, a reflection on the frontman’s openness to and recognition of a good idea when he hears one. 'I refuse a safety net,' Wilson sings on the slow-grooving, uplifting ‘In a Dive’, a defiant stance that could serve as the leitmotif for a career that has followed a very singular course.

In the same song, the line 'Jesus and his blood don’t mean so much anymore' sounds a bold response to composer Gavin Bryar’s famous refrain as sung by Tom Waits on 'Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet'.

Wilson shares some of Waits’ hobo chic and vaudevillian flare, though whereas Waits has always foregrounded the bluesy down-on-heel persona and the plain bizarre, Wilson’s craft is more firmly rooted in the melancholy-tinged romanticism that runs from Nick Drake to Rufus Wainwright.

Wilson, however, is an optimist, as the poetic narrative of the title track confirms. 'In the blinding light of rising suns,' he sings, 'I’m not afraid to love.' Yet the undoubted romance of his 'wide-eyed ink and quill' is tempered by a realist’s hand: 'There will one day come a time your name won’t shiver down my spine' he intones on the balladic 'Statues', a painfully honest reflection on the parting of ways.

Synth bass and repeating Moog figures combine with violin and cello to bring orchestral breadth to the anthemic 'Wingman', as striking as any tune Wilson has ever penned.

Synthesizers bright and rhythmic color the buoyant 'Step to the Magical' with 'summer gold dancing on eyelashes… kisses like punches… silver trails on all she touches', while 'Elephant Graveyard' is another breezy tune that combines song-writing gravitas with 1980s retro-pop charm. The former number has summer anthem written all over it, if only mainstream radio has the wit to play it.

Just occasionally the lyrics are a little arch, as on 'Son of the Left Hand', but the musical contours and cadences of Wilson’s voice are never less than captivating. Martial drums, synth pulses and riffing strings propel the infectious 'Nail on the Head'. By contrast, the bare bones architecture of 'Tweed Coats' pitches voice and minimal piano in slow, cinematic waltz. 

'Stepping Stones' stems from similarly understated musical terrain, which frames striking poetic imagery. 'Let’s lift our hearts to the beams and climb on the thunder, sparkle the dark,' sings Wilson.

The final track, the Hammond organ and strings-buoyed 'Domino', closes a consistently impressive set on a musically upbeat, lyrically ambiguous note; while the music sinks its claws, the words gnaw away on a more cerebral level.

There is a gently-voiced grandeur to Wilson’s very personal ballads, anthems and beautifully sculpted pop vehicles. The poetry and melodies resonate long after the final note has sounded.

Look Out Machines! is out now on Stranger Records.