Flanked by a cast of collaborators including Lil Silva, Twin Shadow, Sampha and Mr. Mitch, Duval Timothy’s “Help” uses brushstrokes of jazz, R&B, soul, piano miniatures, found sound, spoken word and silence to paint a picture of intimacy, and work through the reality of how things don’t always get better.
“Help”, Timothy’s fourth album, is a beautiful and compelling listen. It feels well-worn. Right from the jump, the opening ‘Next Tomorrow’ has this curious familiarity. It doesn’t strike you as a song that was released in August. No, it seems to hold court with more prestige than that, as if you’re booting up a 1950s modal jazz staple, or, say, getting the tingles as ‘Start’ slides into ‘Thinkin Bout You’ on “Channel Orange”. Across the record are recurrences of similar déjà vu, which suggests either Timothy is speaking to universal truths, penning timeless music, or both.
The album’s sequencing can seem carefree, although there are purposeful movements, like the closing run of ‘Ice’, ‘C’ and ‘U’ – an easter-egg reference that could allude to either clarity of vision, a health ward or staring straight through a transparent adversary. This nonlinearity befits Timothy’s compositions when you examine them up close, too. Negative space might swallow a chord progression whole then spit out something new. It takes a great deal of thought and nous to sound this weightless.
The album’s tonal richness doesn’t necessarily require you to know the backstory, but you’d be missing essential detail. At heart, the album is about the mental health of Timothy and his guests. Every song, no matter whether unadorned or fleshed-out, carries the burden of navigating a complex and cruel life on its shoulders. On the Lil Silva and Melanie Faye collaboration ‘Fall Again’, the importance of having faith to ground you is detailed at length. Mr. Mitch breaks it down with concision on ‘Something’ using three words: “Something wasn’t right.”
‘Slave’, featuring Twin Shadow, goes direct by talking frankly about contractual deals which hold Black musicians captive. The pair excoriate unyielding major labels who completely miss the historical parallels and fail to acknowledge the strain they place on musicians in their supposed duty of care. This scenario wore Timothy down over a number of years, making it feel all the more resonant on playback.
On ‘Groundnut’, perhaps the most gorgeous song of all –– and also the name of the West African dinner club that Timothy helped run in the early 2010s, out of which grew an award-winning and typically personal cookbook –– we can make out Twin Shadow’s voice uttering “need you so close.” It’s unclear as to whether his request was honoured. The running theme of the album gestures toward the possibility that said loneliness maintained.
“Help” is a record that facilitates introspection but doesn’t upbraid the listener for admitting weakness. It simply lets you get on with the business of healing. Unforced yet thought-provoking, dense yet stark, the LP is the clearest exposition to date of Timothy’s talents. The upward curve of his artistic progression suggests that statement won’t stand for long.