When Badly Drawn Boy debuted in the late '90s, listeners were forced to reconcile his craftsmanlike songs and heavenly voice with someone who looked like he lived at the bus station. Duke Special is a similar case. He's an eye-shadowed, dreadlocked singer/songwriter with a taste for vaudeville (its performers and its fashion) who could, nevertheless, be safely taken under the wing of any James Blunt fan. (Admittedly, hanging posters on the bedroom wall would be another story.) What's more important to know about Duke Special is that he's a Belfast boy, and there's something specifically Irish about how he wears his sincerity with no hint of irony or shame, and how his pop-orchestral arrangements, occasionally bombastic, work surprisingly well because of that sincerity (especially considering his wealth of up-again/down-again relationship songs). He's also a fine songwriter, channeling Van Morrison and Tom Waits, but also balancing sentiments that anyone can relate to with over-specific facts that bring his songs back into heavy personalization. The melodies are perhaps not tight enough for true commercial crossover, and conversely too broad for underground appeal, but Duke Special's unique persona goes a long way toward papering over those small concerns.
AllMusic Review by John Bush