Expect the unexpected. Emblazoned across yoga journals and OM-inducing ads for meditation retreats in the wilderness, this well-worn phrase has gotten a lot of mileage over time. From Heraclitus’ Clement of Alexandria: Stromata to Oscar Wilde’s biting comedy, An Ideal Husband, the expression might now seem cliché in the 21st century, but there is some ounce of merit to its “profound” sentiment — whether that be applied to life, literature, or the shifting, creative catalog of a pop artist.
In the era of carbon-copied clones and formulaic song structures, 29-year-old Scottish musician C Duncan is an anomaly of sorts. His debut record Architect was a masterclass in nuance, joyous and kaleidoscopic one moment and quietly ruminative the next. The unanticipated detour that was his blue-hued, Twilight Zone-inspired sophomore album The Midnight Sun followed, and if fans assumed the Mercury Prize-nominated virtuoso would continue churning out the same aesthetic again, they are to be pleasantly blindsided by his latest artistic statement.
C Duncan’s Health, is a sublime sucker punch to the senses, a radical shift in mood, vision, color, and sound that few might have anticipated after two intimate albums of pastoral dream-pop. This expanded color palette was revealed in January when gorgeous lead single “Impossible” arrived with much indie fanfare. Announcing that he had abandoned the comforts of his bedroom studio and enlisted Elbow’s Craig Potter to produce his third, emotionally honest outing, was rather unforeseen. Writing and recording the album “was the biggest shift in dynamic for me”, Duncan said. “Having always worked alone, it was a daunting prospect, but one I knew I had to explore.”
Health opens with the tuneful “Talk Talk Talk”, a bouncy, pseudo-optimistic track about the woes and learning curves of miscommunication. If spring is in full bloom, these flowers are quickly rotting in their vase. The lyrics allude to a turbulent relationship where two individuals finally arrive on the same page, only to realize that the journey to get there took a bit more work than they had anticipated. C sings, “Come and stop all the heartbreak and madness / And take all the heartache and sadness away / Oh when you go away…” It’s almost as if the object of his affection is both the inflictor, custodian, and emancipator of all his confusion and suffering.
What follows is Duncan’s most gleefully diverse collection yet. From the waltzing, lovelorn breakup ballad “Wrong Side of the Door”, to the leisurely groove of “Holiday Home”, a breezy, poolside cocktail of track topped off with a paper parasol, the aptly titled Health is the sound of an artist emotionally raw and reinvigorated. Unlike its sonically dense predecessors, this record truly breathes giving each instrumental element as much of a vivid personality as that lush voice. Knowing that his parents — former musicians in the Royal Scottish National Orchestra — also played strings on the entire record makes it all the more charming.
Inspired by the anti-gay purges in Chechnya and his coming out journey, the introspective ballad “He Came From the Sun”, is as much a stunning highlight of the record, as the Manhattan Transfer-tight harmonies of “Stuck Here With You”, the jazzy, lounge-laden “Blasé”, or his synth-soaked, remix-ready track “Pulses and Rain”. Health concludes with “Care”, a breathtaking lullaby, featuring Manchester ensemble the Hallé Youth Choir. Akin to ABBA’s “Like an Angel Passing Through My Room”, as seen through the lens of Anne Sofie von Otter and Elvis Costello on their record For the Stars, this beautiful ode to loneliness stays with you long after the record stops spinning.
With his sexuality, anxieties, and dating woes thrust to the narrative forefront of these songs, Health sound and lyrics flit between Glaswegian grey skies and the unbridled joy and warmth of sunlight on your skin in the dead of winter. Make no mistake, this is a break-up record, but one that flirts with pain and looks back at it all with an open heart, optimistic for a brighter future. It is a staggering portrait of a man willing to divulge his insecurities, his passions, his failures, and hold them up for the entire world to examine and devour. Three albums in, and his remarkable voice still dazzles as it did on his masterful debut, but now you actually might find yourself dancing to everything around it. That is indeed, unexpected.