Review: Duval Timothy’s ‘Help’

Duval Timothy’s sophomore album Help builds builds life and summons ghosts with the absence of words. Most of its 18 tracks are solely instrumental. The ones that do use words are warped and chopped. He gathers vocal fragments, stretched like taffy or copy&pasted over each other until they become an opaque blur, and through their transformation manages to reveal a plethora of meanings alongside their articulative deconstruction. Over the drifting tides of “Look,” he samples minimalist and color field painter Ellsworth Kelly discussing his dislike of decoration. “It’s like bad painting,” his voice is coarse, worn with age. “A painting really has to really mean something—to me, I mean. It’s hard to say what it means except what you feel and what you can do with it by investigating.” Piano keys, the shifting of waves, and a robotic tick like clockwork are a background to Kelly’s thoughts and childhood reminiscence of making art.

Kelly’s words hang over Help; they hover in between Timothy’s swelling piano melodies and broken off bits of recorded word. The samples Timothy chooses for his work are not decorative, although after a while they might sit comfortably within our ears. On Help, he illustrates an investigative plot of meaning and recuperation—how does a conversation, a person, an experience take shape with only filler words (“Like”)? How does a charged word like “slave” interact with music, how does it become music?

For the peculiar and spooky “Still Happened,” Timothy tosses words in a blender. If not for his Bandcamp, there would be no way of deciphering them. They read: “Came in/The album went out/The money changed hands/Whether you count it or not/It still happened.” They suggest a linear narrative—a beginning, middle, and end. But all that comes to mind are images out of Twin Peaks, something that is striking but confounding. I swear I hear the word “literally.” But it doesn’t matter. There’s a laugh. A warped stutter. Real time is liquid in a lava lamp. If I wasn’t sitting down writing this, I would let the scribbles of words pass over me like a gust of misty wind. I’m comfortable with the gibberish. Maybe it’s subliminal because of the initial lyrics, but “Still Happened” has an inarticulate calmness. This unrelenting calm is a strength throughout many tracks of the album.

Then there’s a small interlude “TDAGB,” which samples his sister explaining how “everyone wants to believe that it will work out,” but she thinks the opposite. The clip, not even 30 seconds long is stripped of context, yet it follows the confronting and graceful “Slave,” which features vocals from Ibiye Camp, a sample of Pharrell Williams talking about owning your recording masters (and as a result the companies that seek oppressive control), and guitar work from Twin Shadow. Similar to its predecessor, “TDAGB” addresses the intentions of sampling, the way someone else’s words and voice are at the mercy of the producer—and then at the mercy of the interpreter (me). It might feel like an ignorable transition, but “TDAGB” resonates considering the devastation the world is currently witnessing. I, also, am drawn to the vocal manipulation of his sister’s voice, which starts off pitched low like a cartoon villain and then gradually is pitched upwards like a ballon losing its air. Her voice seems to reach its natural pitch in the middle, landing on the word “sometimes.” Sometimes things work out. The fluctuation of pitch feels like Timothy is translating the movement of time. It’s begrudgingly slow and then irritatingly fast, but there is always that moment in between. There is a moment of normalcy. Maybe, where it works out. Help is a beacon of optimism or blunting pessimism, but resilience.

Duval Timothy’s work is subtle with its intention, and to only scratch the surface at its meaning for him would require doing some research. Although born and raised in South London, after his father migrated from Sierra Leone, his family lives in the latter. He splits his time between London and Freetown, where he’s building a community studio, learned the local language, and even the country’s intricate craft of weaving. His work is in conversation with his ancestry and ethnicity. Together his story, his feelings, his intentions were ripped into springy piano rhythms, neon-infused synths, and formidable, cascading melodies in order to be weaved together into captivating patterns.

In an interview with Martha Pazienti-Caiden, Timothy mentions being inspired by art therapy and samples that referenced self-help for his most recent work. When working with producer Rodaidh McDonald, they “realized a lot of [the samples] are there or inspired a track but we could pull them out and, maybe it’s something only I hear, but it’s these ghost of samples that are there. The meaning is there, but I didn’t need to have it there as such an obvious reference,” he says. These phantoms rest within Help, enforcing its intriguing relationship with time. They loiter between the deep breaths of melodic climaxes, an elemental character of the house they were born into. We often don’t know what they are saying, but their presence invigorates us.

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