Notes on 'Meeting with a Judas Tree'
Meeting with a Judas Tree is the latest Duval Timothy record. Here's the lead single, "Mutate," which I'll return to a bit later.
For those who haven't heard me shout about Duval Timothy before, here's a very short intro: Timtothy makes a sort of ambient piano-based jazz, which might not be to everyone's taste but is extremely to mine. You might have heard some of his playing on the latest Kendrick (such as "Crown", where he's front and center, sampling/replaying bits of "Through the Night" from Brown Loop, his first album. You may have seen or heard me prostletyze for him before. or seen me put his work into various Friends at the Table playlists—"Whale" was super important for me to figure out Spring in Hieron's tone.
His work has been one of my most important musical companions for years. It's there when I write, when I travel, when I'm deep in emotional holes. It resonates with me in a way that very little else does. And while I always had a suspicion as to why that was (beyond just "dude can play the hell out of a piano"), this new album helped confirm it.
But for you to understand it, you might need to go back to albums like Brown Loop and Sen Am before listening to the new record. Because here, Timothy returns to, responds to, and distorts to old chords, progressions, and little familiar modes of playing. "Up" feels like a direct response to "Ibs", raising instead of lowering at the end of the three note note melody that's the backbone of the song. On tracks like "Mutate" (above) and especially "Drift", the final song on the album, he presents largely a new compositions, but every now and then a familiar melody swerves in, distorted as if through an old tape player, or slowed down, or sped up, or stood with for just a moment. Building, releasing, returning.
This isn't new for Duval Timothy. Go back and listen to "Slave", his 2020 track with Twin Shadow, and see how he's returning to some of the ideas he first put down in "Ball and "No" from Sen Am. Hell, "Up" isn't even the first time he's responded to "Ibs," he put out "Ibs Pt. 2" as a standalone months after Sen Am dropped. And in a broader sense, the way he has always layered in field recordings, voicemails, and the sounds of his life, world, and past reveal that he's been doing this from the jump, and (besides the quality of the compositions themselves) that is why I keep returning to him.
Two big biases I have in my general media consumption are my predelection for complete works and my weakness to a sort self-critique/self-response/deconstructive mode of production. Plainly:
- I am fundamentally an album guy. I do not hit shuffle unless I am at a party or unless I am listening to like a gym playlist. When I put music on (or when I want to read a comic or watch a tv show or play a game series), I want to start at the start and consume everything in full. I don't listen to singles, I don't watch one off episodes on random. I build plenty of playlists but then I listen to them in order—I've curated them for me to hear them in the order I have.
- I love it when a sequel hates its forebearer. Or when it reflects a growing skepticism with the ideas of what came before it. Or when it simply want sto do a little call-and-response with what came first. Twin Peaks Season 3. Dark Souls 2. Turn A Gundam. Is it any wonder I'm the exact sor tof insufferable that I am?
This is front of mind for me because I just finished watching Ketih and Kylie of Run Button play through Metal Gear Solid 2, and that remains my favorite game in the series because of its constant engagement with MGS1. This is the oldest of games criticism old hat stuff at this point, but you know, in MGS2 you are largely playing someone who himself was (re-)shaped by playing MGS1.
(It's also probably front of mind for me because Friends at the Table is currently gearing up to return to the Divine Cycle, which has effectively been an entire series built around self response around a self-critical inquiry. COUNTER/Weight opened with the argument that the giant mechs of fiction (and the technological and institutional inventions of humans) could have been built to look like anything, but were "made to look like us." Twilight Mirage scoffed at that, saying instead that when we thought we were "building mirrors," we were actually "setting fires," making things that were not only fundamentally unlike us, but also things that would outrun us, moving independently and far beyond our grasp. PARTIZAN counters back that it is naive to think we could ever build a culture that escapes our own gravitational pull, positing that we may be be unable to invent any form (cultural, technological, or otherwise) which lets us escape our worst tendancies and biases. What the hell is PALISADE, the next season in this long series, going to say back? Good question. Hopefully I'll know soon!)
In any case: I like to enjoy things in full form, and I like it best when they're in conversation with themselves and what came before. Timothy's work hits both of these for me so well. Every album is a coherent whole and enjoying them all sequentially means you wind up with a long exploration of sound and emotion that is both controversion and extension, turning in on itself and sprouting off in new direction.
Because, to be clear, there's lots that makes Meeting With a Judas Tree that is new, too. He's playing with a wider range of sounds here: layered effects, different pianos, recurring loops, distorted audio samples, found sounds. This is of course just an extension of work he'd already been doing. Back on Help in 2020, he started adding in more electric and electronic instrumentation, and it's fun to see him do similar work here but with what feels like an even broader set of sounds. This is a record that spins a even closer to "ambient" than his past work has, and for where I sit right now, my plate full of head-down writing, wandering-and-thinking creative ideation, and impending holiday travel, that's exactly what I need.
But at its heart is this sense of response, confrontation, and synthesis. Even the title references a "meeting." A meeting how, it does not answer. An appointment? A sit down conversation? A collision, as a bat meets a ball, or an out of control car meets such a tree off the side of the road? What might emerge from such a meeting, especially when the tree has such name so grounded in contention?
That it is colloquially even called a Judas Tree is, unsurprisingly, the result of standard linguistic corruption, apocryphal assignation, and cultural drift. Apparently, a Christian sermon popularized 131 years ago uses the tree as a metaphor for temptations as dangerous as they are pleasurable:
"The blossoms appear before the leaves, and they are of a brilliant crimson. The flaming beauty of the flowers attracts innumerable insects; and the wandering bee is drawn after it to gather honey. But every bee which alights upon the blossom, imbibes a fatal opiate, and drops dead from among the crimson flowers to the earth."
But this is, of course, apocryphal too.
In truth, bees drawn to meet with the Judas Tree, are lifted by its nectar, and soon lift into the air again, pollen covered, in search of yet more crimson.
Thanks to everyone for reading, and extra thanks to anyone who supports me and my broader work here or through any of my project's specific Patreons. No bigger update on those today, but just for reference, you can always find me and the work I do on:
Friends at the Table (where we are on the Road to PALISADE)
A More Civilzied Age (where we are putting out KILLER Andor podcasts)
https://twitter.com/austin_walker (for now, anyway!)
Also, heads up, the game studio I work at during my day job hours is hiring a UX Director, IT Services Lead, Senior Backend Engineer, UX Systems Engineer, and a Senior Producer! Find out more here.