“We’re at the end,” sings C Duncan, playfully, as his new album opens. Don’t be fooled: endings are the spur for new beginnings on the fourth album from Glasgow’s classically trained
multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter. After the haunting raptures of Architect (2015), the Twilight Zone-inspired reveries of The Midnight Sun (2016) and the richly melodic Health (2019), Alluvium is a sublime palate-refresher for Duncan (C for Christopher), brimming with revitalised fluency: a warming dispatch from the daylight zone, if you like.
With personal stories as fertile soil for its multi-stranded growths, Alluvium navigates its many tones and styles with lightness and grace. As Duncan explains, “The Midnight Sun was very much in one tone with a common musical theme driving the whole record – I guess more of a dream-like state. Health was the flipside to that – dealing with themes of sexuality and mental health. With Alluvium I wanted to make a positive record with lots of different musical ideas and lyrics that could move from serious to playful to over-the-top romantic in a fluid way.”
That sense of fluidity buoys up the well-titled opener, ‘Air,’ the first song written and recorded for the album. With the sweep, levity and discreet intricacy of John Grant’s symphonic intimacies, the song sets the tone for an album that knows endings can sometimes sow seeds for rebirths. “I liked the idea of the first lyrics for the album being ‘We’re at the end,’” says Duncan, “thus surrendering to the world and moving forward from that point.”
Forward momentum is sustained by the optimistic ‘Heaven,’ an unashamed pop song sprinkled with retro-synth stardust. Inspired by a conversation Duncan had with his late grandmother about her life, the Carpenters-ish ‘We Have a Lifetime’ reflects on the need to let go of those things you can’t change and accept the things you can, a humble design for living adroitly set to a tranquil backdrop.
The nimble left-turn of ‘Bell Toll’ further showcases Duncan’s dynamism, bringing to mind a meeting between Michel Legrand and early Kate Bush. The tender interlude of ‘Lullaby’ follows, clearing the way for ‘Torso,’ a love song with poetry in its heart. “It’s about how you could give away every part of yourself for somebody (metaphorical limbs and all!) and yet still be more complete,” says Duncan. “The world around you disappears and all that matters is this intense adoration. I was inspired by a poem by Charles-Marie-René Leconte de Lisle called ‘Le Colibri’ in which a hummingbird descends upon a heavenly scented red hibiscus flower, ‘Drinks so much love from the rosy cup, That he dies, not knowing if he’d drunk it dry,’ which is followed by, ‘On your pure lips, O my beloved, My own soul too would sooner have died from that first kiss which scented it.’”
In the clearest case of the lockdown’s influence on Alluvium, ‘Pretending’ sets an account of a move out of the city to a breezy, liberated pop melody. Elsewhere, Duncan thrives in fleet-footed contrasts, setting songs of change and partings to lush soft-pop (‘You Don’t Come Around’), zero-gravity synth-pop (‘I Tried’) and misty-eyed hypnagogic waltzes (‘Sad Dreams’). ‘Alluvium’ is a harpsichord-led reverie, ‘Earth’ a kind of follow-up to ‘Air’ couched in, says Duncan, a mix of “the melodramatic and the mundane. It’s apocalyptic on the one hand, and on the other it’s an account of somebody switching off their TV, packing up their personal belongings and simply relocating before the sun fades from existence. It could be attributed to all sorts of personal upheaval but it’s essentially about setting fire to everything and running away.”
The Sufjan Stevens-ish hymnal of ‘The Wedding Song’ continues that sense of exquisite unburdening, before ‘Upon the Table’ closes the album on a note of romantic gratitude. “‘Upon the Table’ is a love song written for my partner,” says Duncan. “We have been through a lot in the last year or so, as have many others, and it is a reminder that whatever comes our way, there will always be love and support waiting there.”
Seemingly lit from within, Alluvium is a gorgeous culmination of Duncan’s travels thus far with its eyes set on the future. Born in Glasgow to two classical musicians, Duncan played in school bands before studying music composition at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Swift attention followed when his debut album, Architect, banked a Mercury Music Prize nomination; its follow-up, The Midnight Sun, reached the shortlist for the Scottish Album of the Year. A support slot on tour with Elbow then beckoned, after which Duncan recorded his third album, Health, at Elbow’s Salford studio with Craig Potter. Another entry on the shortlist for Scottish Album of the Year came accompanied by duly effusive reviews. Throughout his career, Duncan has banked raves from The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Uncut and others, alongside much love from BBC Radio 6 Music.
Besides support slots with Belle & Sebastian and The Blue Nile, Duncan went on to fill ever-bigger venues in his own name, including London’s Union Chapel and Scala. 2020 brought another career development in the shape of a collaboration with Bella Union’s Simon Raymonde for the Lost Horizons project; the song, ‘Circle’, perhaps prefigures the effortless-seeming breeziness of Duncan’s writing on Alluvium.
Following the thematically loaded Health, Duncan set out to make a record guided by instinct rather than prescriptive themes. Subtexts emerged of their own volition: of “moving forward, leaving things behind and ending up somewhere totally new and different,” he says.
Behind the scenes, changes steered the record. A move to a home near the water in Helensburgh a couple of years ago proved instrumental. Here, Duncan worked on the album in his home studio, writing, recording, and producing himself (he did the artwork, too), with contributions from his parents on strings for ‘The Wedding Song.’ “It’s a very inspiring place to work,” he says, “and I wanted to return to recording from home as it gives me time and space to develop songs without any outside pressure. I feel very comfortable working alone.”
Supple and serene, buoyant, and beatific, Alluvium moves at its own pace, evidence of an intuitive talent in unforced flow. Give it your time: who knows, it might be the start of something special.