It’s hard to find the exact words to describe Duke Special. There are so, so many singer songwriters around, often with interesting things to say, good melodies, nice voices. Special has all that, but he’s somehow skewed. And I’m not just saying that because he looks like a refugee from Evanesence.
His songs don’t align with modern genres easily, and his subjects are not exactly weird, but there’s something not quite right about them either. Take the opener, Wake Up Scarlett. Is the narrator singing about a girl he’s just deflowered, or one he’s just killed? Is it a tender love song, or a demented ramble?
I like to imagine that, 50 years ago, Duke Special would have been writing songs for musicals, that 100 years ago he’d have been bounding around a vaudeville theatre stage, utilising his undoubted grasp of popular music styles to flesh out a story. He’s adept at taking elements from different styles of music and making them accessible and pleasing. There’s a whiff of Kurt Weill in the clunky backing band on Ballad of a Broken Man, while Last Night I Nearly Died, the latest single, is a lament sung to a Soul Train motif: an unholy but inspired combination. But he can also write very contemporary sounding, smooth soft rock like the album’s first single, Freewheel, a song that’s closer to Coldplay than Cole Porter. What gives?
With Songs From The Deep Forest, his second album, Special – as I suppose we’re forced to call him although his real name is Peter Wilson – give us delightfully obtuse snippets. Who is Rose with her “acorn eyes” who “spins some dervish mother” from Brixton Leaves, a dramatic torch song with a meandering oboe theme winding its way above plinky-plonky piano, and even a touch of tap dancing sound effects.
Special has a rich voice with its Irish burr, and an ear for a catchy tune. He likes to showcase instruments, chiefly trumpet, strings and oboe, on his songs, rather in the style of Pete Atkin, but his arrangements are not quite as plain. His subject matter is similarly diverse, but instead of insouciance he delivers most songs as high dramas, the exception being the breezy Slip Of A Girl (a cover of an old Amazing Pilots track) as the album winds down. “Your broken heart was never on my mind” he wails on Portrait, squeezing every drop of drama from his stories of relationships gone wrong, lost loves and obsessives. The album ends with the soft piano chords of This Could Be My Last Day, in which the singer laments a lover, 11 years dead and reflects on the fragility of life.
If you wish to fit Duke Special into the mosaic of contemporary music, slot him in somewhere between Colin Moloy of The Decemberists and Sufjan Stevens. He has a similar sense of grand guignol… but less irony and is less in love with clever rhymes. Although he sometimes comes over as artificially fey – his official biography states “I want to capture something dusty and beautiful on record, something that sounds like Christmas smoking through an old wooden radio.” which might make the casual reader think “What a tosser” – don’t let that distract you from the quality of the music.