Visiting the architectural remnants of Belarus' Soviet administration, the eclectic and imaginative inner monologues of singer/songwriter Joseph Hughes found inspiration. Amidst washed-out colours and long-rusting statues, something stood firm - defiantly resolute to the passing of time: the irrepressible expression of humanity, and the beauty of it.
Recording as The Birthday Letters, Hughes' debut album Human Beauty is a remarkable testament to the artist's capabilities as a songwriter and as a producer too, filled with compelling creativity and an exceptionally well-crafted amalgamation of striking performances and layers of surprisingly adept electronic influences. At 34 minutes long, Hughes sidesteps one of the common complaints with self-made indie musicians, keeping his songs concise and efficient - while still offering a plethora of details and decisions to return to time and time again.
It's abundantly clear that each song on Human Beauty enjoyed immeasurable lengths of careful consideration, poured over with a loving attention to the minutia of each second of every song. As a result, this album is constantly fluctuating in sonic directions - but certainly not sounding unfocused. Quite the opposite. Each song feels like the exploration of a very particular sound, and every time Hughes pitches his charmingly intriguing creative decisions, they land with pleasingly consistent successes.
Take opener 'Open Heart Learning' and it's synthesis of a super-simple lo-fi drum loop and a richly recorded acoustic guitar. Hughes' subtle guitar variations should not go unnoticed, occasionally poking through with quiet ornamentations against the stark comparison of it's unmoving drum pattern. I don't think the song needed the extra section beginning at [2:27] as the song might've worked particularly well as a confident and brief opener, but regardless of any potential superfluity this first song proves a competent beginning and a signal of intent for the sonic directions of the LP.
'New Thought Leader' is a highlight for the album as a whole. Appearing on our latest spotify playlist, the tune is one that screams to be recognised as an exceptional feat of independent production. Though Hughes' vocal introduction is arguably a moment of weakness in comparison to the album's general quality with it lacking presence in the mix, the brief harmony at [1:02] sounds phenomenal, and sparks the song to move into a wonderful direction. From the first minute onwards, the song leaves me dumbstruck. The guitar tone? Outstanding. The hyper-electronic vocal loops? Genius. The horns? Fucking hell Joseph. The breakdown is superbly executed, and altogether the song serves as such a phenomenal demonstration of Hughes' talents. Wrapped up with a simple, The War on Drugs-esque passage, 'New Thought Leader' is a triumph.
Our thoughts on the exceptional 'Dirty Crusty' were divulged back in April when The Birthday Letters first found themselves pushed through the figurative SMPM letterbox. 'The Book of Job' follows up as a pleasant (if slightly unremarkable) ride, before another of the album's true gems emerges. The titular 'Human Beauty' feels so effortlessly perfect for Mr. Birthday. As a singer, at times the album does feels as though it pushes into vocal directions slightly uncomfortable for Hughes' range (mainly in the otherwise lyrically arresting 'Epoch (For H.J.D.)') but no such criticisms are to be found with the album's title track.The song is utterly, completely, absolutely fantastic. The artist's voice fits the melancholy sedation of the tune superbly, with Hughes finding a slightly lower vocal range that I recommend he explores as much as possible. Melting together with astoundingly well recorded guitars, pianos and faux-string sections, this song quite simply sounds too good to be made single-handedly in an East-London shoebox apartment. Pentatonic piano passages give way to an eye-wateringly pleasant vocal sampling, before giving way to a *tremendous* drum groove. I'm running out of adjectives to describe how good this song really is. This is a song that will translate phenomenally well to a live environment, so here's hoping that before long we might all be able to exist in the same sonic space as the exceptional 'Human Beauty'.
The final third of the album is strong. 'My Kronstadt' didn't grab me quite like some of the album's other highlights managed, but the passage of 'A Play on Magic' and 'Chances of Victory', separated by the compellingly super-MIDI sounds of interlude 'I Wish You Well, I Really Do', provides a satisfactory conclusion to a very good piece of work. I would love to see Hughes embark more experimentally in his production moving forward, as the glitch-infused details of musical creativity stand as the LP's most compelling feature, and there is o much room to grow and explore into from the very good start this record has made.
Human Beauty would be a success if it had come from a source with significant financial backing, but for the album to sound this accomplished from its humble origins The Birthday Letters' debut record is an emphatic achievement and an incredibly promising start to this artist's career. If TBL continues to flesh out his electronic influences and focuses his vocal performance around the successes of 'Human Beauty' the future is incredibly bright. There is so much potential around the possibilities of The Birthday Letters' sound, and we are incredibly interested to see where it will lead.
- 7.6 -
'New Thought Leader', 'Dirty Crusty', 'Human Beauty'
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based in South Wales.
Ben Wheadon is editor and founder of Slow Motion Panic Masters. He is a Welsh musician and will be attending the University of Oxford for a Masters Degree in American literature from October 2020.