Second albums can be tricky to navigate at the best of times, let alone when you’re attempting to follow up a Mercury Prize-nominated debut. That’s the task facing C Duncan. The Scottish composer and musician was plucked from relative obscurity when his first LP, Architect, enchanted the judges in 2015. While it didn’t end up taking the top prize – which went to Benjamin Clementine – the recognition put him on the map.
Architect deserved to be noticed as well, with Duncan’s meticulous approach to song composition creating a luscious soundscape from his Glaswegian bedroom studio. Yet with success comes expectation and the age old problem of whether to stick or twist with a formula that has been proven to work. It turns out that Duncan has decided to take the middle ground with his second LP, The Midnight Sun.
Many of the elements that made his first effort so charming are in place again, with soaring synths, layered acoustic components and Duncan’s soothing vocals all being reprised. However, the overall approach has been tweaked. “I knew I wanted the album to have more of a theme/thread throughout it which Architect didn’t have,” he said ahead of the release of The Midnight Sun. That theme ends up being The Twilight Zone.
It’s an interesting direction for Duncan to go in, especially as the American sci-fi show provides such fruitful ground for inspiration. First, there’s the album’s title, which takes its name from one of Duncan’s favourite episodes. Then there’s the atmosphere inhabited by the 11 tracks that comprise The Midnight Sun. From the eeriness of stunning opener Nothing More right through until closer Window, there is a clear and distinctive direction.
Following the gorgeous, soaring vocals and unsettling beat of Nothing More, comes the majestic Like You Do, which is one of the most haunting entries on the record. Duncan says the song was inspired by someone close to him, who was suffering from depression, and the contrast between its beautiful sonic layers and the lyrics is quite affecting as he sings: “It’s clear to me/ it’s clear to me/ you’re suffering/ you’re suffering.”
This personal touch runs throughout The Midnight Sun, as further evidenced by Last To Leave, which maps out the progression of Duncan’s relationship with his ex. It begins with a delightfully uplifting melody, almost as if soundtracking a nostalgic dream, before gradually developing into a pulsating climax. This is followed by the ultra chilled out Do I Hear?, which also reflects on a relationships and the compromises that are made.
The Midnight Sun is not all heavenly melodies and choral harmonies, though, with Other Side adding a different texture. Its lyrics about escapism are matched by a catchy piano hook and stuttering beat, creating the closest thing to a pop track on the record, while lead single Wanted To Want It Too features propulsive synths that could have come straight from the soundtrack to Nicolas Winding Refn’s film Drive.
Yet even when Duncan brings something new to the table, it is still framed by the overarching otherworldliness that he set out to achieve. Whether it’s the ethereal Who Lost, where he sings about sibling rivalry, or the lofty almost psychedelia of the title track, his original vision remains consistent. This is hammered home by unnerving penultimate track Jupiter, which manages to be creepy and euphoric in the same breath.
If Duncan was daunted about the prospect of following up his critically-acclaimed debut, it certainly doesn’t show here. Like its predecessor, every single element on The Midnight Sun appears to have been carefully and painstakingly thought out, but serene closer Window is a perfect demonstration of just how effortless it all sounds. C Duncan has worked his magic once again – just sit back and soak it all in.