During recent years, the emerging concept of Hauntology – one manifestation of which is a nostalgic longing for the cultural signatures of the late twentieth century – has begun to take root in entertainment, a fascination spread by knowingly kitsch movies such as La La Land, exploited by the recent Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody and evidenced by our continual, circular fascination with long established musical forms.
Christopher Duncan seemed to stumble across this phenomenon on his 2015 debut Architect by accident rather than design; ageless, the songs were just as likely to draw on the influence of thirties warblers The Inkspots as that of retro-folk doyen Robin Pecknold.
Architect won Duncan a Mercury nomination, a remarkable feat for a self-produced and composed effort recorded for just £50 in his home studio. Its follow up The Midnight Sun was made the same way, but for Health the Glaswegian broke with process, put Elbow’s Craig Potter at the controls, hired musicians and entered the studio for the first time. Unsurprisingly, there are changes.
Whether consciously or not, Potter has brought some greater definition; Duncan has confessed to learning as he went at first, repetition being his friend. Here though, there’s a bold use of the new resources, with piano balladry of a grander scale on the finale Care and via Reverie, the latter as ambitious an arrangement as the Scot has ever attempted.
Elsewhere, there are flirtations with giddy, jazz-like tempos (Stuck Here with You, Somebody Else’s Home) and an underwhelming tilt at happy hour crooning (Wrong Side Of The Door) but, as if happily committed to overcoming accusations of a lack of definition in some of his music, Health otherwise brims with clarity and new ideas.
One of them is finally cutting to the chase and writing a track in the pop vernacular of this century, as opener Talk Talk Talk bounces with a neat dancefloor rhythm and a willingness for new horizons, while Pulses And Rain is a little less syncopated but still carries the same nervous energy.
There is another, more powerful subtext here however: Duncan has never been so open in his lyrics before about his sexuality, Health a coming-out-in-public declaration of sorts. Sometimes the references are still oblique – Impossible alludes to a relationship frustrated by both distance and time – but the most profound expression can be found on He Came From The Sun with its soft focus, delicate phrasing; ‘It’s bittersweet, how short of time/Since I was old enough to tell the world/Who I really am’. The song’s elegance is openly traced over John Grant’s epically contoured Queen Of Denmark, an acerbic memoir that turned stigma on its head, both men on a similar journey in search of understanding.
Up until now, Christopher Duncan has been a soloist in every sense of the word. Health is his most straightforward and candid work yet however, an invitation which although it seemed might never come, takes the listener closer to the man than ever before.
And now we know each other, it’s proof that there’s no need to be still haunted by the past.