Look Out Machines!The Duke can bring the whole of his career together in one song, when progressive pop in the verse switches to a chorus that would not be out of place in a theatrical show. Is this his best album yet?

Label: Stranger Records
Time: 11 tracks / 40 mins.

Duke Special is one of those unpredictable artists, whose new albums draw a breath of excited anticipation.

This one is very much a follow-up in style to Oh! Pioneer, with the same creamy sounds, accessible tunes and honest lyrics that celebrate friendship and ask questions. But this one goes further.

Here we get a new emphasis on electronica that verges on Depeche Mode at times, occasionally touching the light industrial, but usually either making bouncy pop or colouring his adventurous lyrics with a new richness that sends the sounds floating smoothly down the ear.

The single “Elephant Graveyard” is a great example of this, but the tracks abutting it are just as radio-friendly, their upbeat poppiness sometimes belying the depth of thought behind the songs.

The ballads dotted around show that even when stripped down, his tunes stand scrutiny, and when they are familiar, there is a whole depth of meaning to plumb.

Three songs touch on the importance of community and supporting one another (“Wingman,” the excellent “Nail on the Head” and “Domino”); while other topics include relationship issues, challenging the boundaries that damage us, confronting our demons and “Step to the Magical,” which portrays a mesmerising, confident woman. He also lays himself open in his faith journey (see the link below to our Photographic Pioneers interview).

The standard only varies a little: his Boo Hewerdine collaboration “Statues” feels almost as static as the name suggests, with a generic tune, but otherwise nearly everything here is fresh, thoughtful and easy to listen to several times in a row.

If not his best (and it surely is his best-sounding release) it feels the most complete and representative Duke Special album so far. He can bring the whole of his career together in the wonderful “Son of the Left Hand,” when progressive/electro pop in the verse and break switches to a chorus, backed by strings, which would not be out of place in a theatrical show. Fine work.

Derek Walker

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