Every year the Mercury Prize nominations throw up a handful of surprises, as the judges seek to outfox the bookies (and occasionally baffle the public) with a succession of worthy free jazz ensembles, soul-grime crossover stars and elevated bedroom outfits who have the glory of being raised public prominence.
One of the beneficiaries of this year’s announcement is C Duncan, a 25-year-old trained at the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow whose debut record Architect – while excellent – was rather more record shop curio than globe conquering pop phenomenon.
Never mind, riding the Mercury wave, Duncan has just come to the end of a successful UK tour, signing off his adventures with a night at The Art School, that bids farewell to the songs of Architect while hinting at where his fusion of classical choral harmonies with lush British and American folk sounds might take him next.
One new track has the melodic weight of vintage REM, but it’s the whistling assisted ‘For’ that most elegantly encapsulates Duncan’s merging of folk melodies and traditions with choral harmonies.
His songs owe a debt to the baroque arrangements and feathery touch of Grizzly Bear, the poetic tales of Villagers and even a touch of Jeff Buckley on the chiming ‘He Believes in Miracles’.
As we gear up for Christmas ‘I’ll Be Gone by Winter’ is a shiver inducing and melancholic ode to time passing that would suit slowcore troubadours Low, while the encore of ‘Castle Walls’ has a touch of the magic that animated Nick Drake.
The interplay between Duncan’s songs rings from bedroom sketches and the complex harmonies necessary to make them a reality are fascinating, with counter melodies and chants blossoming from a stripped back three-piece band.
Even if they’re more comfortable on the crisply staged folk songs than the moodier, more psych-indebted tracks, the group are hugely impressive and it’s hard to imagine Duncan’s songs being as compelling without the massed harmonies that raise them to their finish.
Closing with the breezy ‘Foundation’, the cheery singer thanks the hometown crowd (and his mum and dad) before departing the stage, but his arrangements ring on around the venue.
In 2015, C Duncan will have been surprised to pick up a Mercury nomination.
Next time out he might be undeniable.
Words: Max Sefton
Photos: Warrick Beyers