Review Summary: Grounded by Timothy's gorgeous piano compositions, "Help" is expansive, soulful ambient music that goes off in unexpected directions.
Befitting of a man who also weaves, sculpts and makes films, Duval Timothy creates music with a whimsical spirit. Grounded by his gorgeous piano compositions—a blend of minimalist classical, avant-garde and smooth jazz—Timothy explores many different styles with an unbothered attitude, not feeling restless as much as casually exploratory. His new album Help
boasts a wide array of instrumentation and genre influence, splitting the 18 tracks between (mostly) solo piano pieces and more elaborate excursions.
Kicking off with the deep synths and slinky keys of “Next Tomorrow”, Help
establishes a groovy and beat-oriented current on the album that weaves through more typically stoic ambient work. His malleable composition style gives itself easily to these excitingly rhythmic and broadly sweeping interpretations: see the smeary, seductive funk of “Groundnut”, or “Fall Again”, where double-tracked guitar licks, pulsating drum loops, and swooning vocals from Lil Silva pile on to Timothy’s rollicking piano, the song venturing into quasi neo-soul territory without breaking a sweat. “Still Happened” is a perfect marriage of this melodic, borderline-pop mode with his more angular side, beginning with tense synthesizers and dissonant, choppy voices that are soon thrown over romantically swaying chords and clacking percussion. And the album ends on a high note with “Pink”, where fuzzy oscillating synths and glitch noise dance atop dark piano.
Timothy shows an able hand when it comes to venturing away from his more pared-down solo keyboard pieces, interspersing these alternately soulful, funky, and gritty songs at a perfect frequency throughout the album’s 55 minutes; it flows like a shoreline, retreating to calmer domain after occasional rushes of excitement. When the arrangement is reduced to his solo piano/electric piano, Timothy achieves sublime beauty in pensive and jagged ways—as on the ruminative “9”, or the overcast “C”, which snags into a coyly non-resolving melody at the end. “Same” and “Ice”, paired towards the back of the album, are both buoyant pieces that are uncannily quaint, like they could’ve been written a century ago if it weren’t for Timothy’s knack for acutely folding his songs in on themselves. Solo piano is a hard avenue to claim a unique voice in, but it’s exciting to hear him develop his own in real time over his records.
Actual voices pop up over the course of the album, and for the most part are impeccably chosen (the irritating pitch-shifted sample on the post-chillwave “Like” is the only obvious weak point). Timothy sprinkled his last release, 2 Sim
, with phone messages from friends and family in Sierra Leone, where his father was born and where Timothy spends much of his time. Help
follows a similar path, and though voice is much less frequent, it often has huge impact: the mournful “Slave” features vocalist Ibiye Camp repeating the title over and over, pouring over the piano like a descending synth line, and a sampled Pharell speech about the racial politics of major labels owning artists' masters bitterly driving the point home; immediately after, Timothy's sister offers sobering wisdom on “TDAGB” (“things don’t always get better”), her voice ironically ascending like a helium balloon. And perhaps most affecting is “Look”, where a stumbling piano coils softly around extraneous noise—digital whooshes, car horns honking—that provide a meditative backdrop to the words of late painter Ellsworth Kelly, who begins:
“I don’t like decoration. It’s like bad painting. Because, to me, a painting really has to really mean something. It’s hard to say what it means except what you feel and what you can do with it by looking and investigating.”
Listening to this album, which rarely feels directionless or purposeless over its 18 tracks, it’s clear why Kelly’s words resonate with Timothy so much. It’s avoids feeling static even as it returns to similar themes—emotive solo piano, soulful ambient, guest heavy electro-jams. Timothy darts into many different directions on Help
with vigor, the genre-hopping a catalyst for wrenching new sounds and themes from his already immensely evocative piano compositions, with almost-always exquisite results.