C Duncan - The Midnight Sun
by Aayushi Jain
When C Duncan released his debut album, Architect, in 2015, it was immediately praised by critics and nominated for the Mercury Prize, setting him alongside the likes of Ghostpoet and Florence And The Machine. This year, The Midnight Sun offers listeners an even more intricate expression of the Scottish composer and musician’s genius – the album is wonderfully ethereal, bathed in a cold luminescence that is so fitting for its title.
With a strong background in classical music, having studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, C Duncan intuitively brings an extraordinary amount of harmonic sophistication to each track, expertly building layer upon layer of vocal and synth phrases. Boundaries between instruments are blurred, creating a rich, dream-pop soundscape that’s always moving to new and unfamiliar places with every change, constantly surging and then dissolving. The album is characteristically distant, spacious, and surreal - it makes perfect sense that the project was inspired by cult TV anthology series Twilight Zone (with the album title itself being the name of one of his favourite episodes). Thematically, the two go hand-in-hand, with their dramatic imagery and moments of tension that are often claustrophobic, enigmatic and unsettling.
At times the melodies are somewhat playful; on tracks like Other Side it’s almost as if he assembles his vocal layers into an animated string orchestra; dreamy and soft, but dramatically dynamic in their multiplicity. C Duncan creates angelic choral patterns – by themselves his vocals are sweet, innocent, and euphoric - but what’s so unusual about this album is the way he imposes them onto darker structures. Thick layers of synth are underpinned by ominous, pulsing bass rhythms, creating a sense of urgency, of chaotic forward movement. As a result, there is a constant eeriness to the entire project, a contained atmosphere of brooding and mystery. Nowhere is this more recognisable than in Like You Do, one of the more unnerving tracks of the album, in which disorientating synth arpeggios repeat themselves frantically, and we hear Duncan’s bittersweet lyrics wash over them.
Lyrically, Midnight Sun is 43 minutes of self-reflection - hidden behind the icy instrumental exterior is an intimacy and warmth, and we get the sense that the experience, for both artist and audience, is transcendental in some way. He sings of self-acceptance, navigation through internal states of disorder, and shifting identities, all through an illuminating lens of introspection, and as the album progresses, feelings that are unmistakably revealing and wondrous emerge from the turmoil.
Midnight Sun is an elegant, spectral masterpiece, simultaneously hypnotised and hypnotic; nowhere else does wide-eyed curiosity meet brooding intensity so effortlessly.