The Birthday Letters - Yearning for Vitalists (Album Review)

Vitalism is a belief that living things and non-living things are fundamentally different. Living things have souls, or what vitalists call "élan vital". It sounds harmless, but according to Dr William F. Williams, it forms the basis for pseudoscientific medical practices that claim many health problems are caused by imbalances in our "élan vital". It's the age-old debate of science vs philosophy and what has led to such tags as 'scientist' being perceived as unfavourable in a cultural context. 

The Birthday Letters is the folktronica project of London based songwriter Joseph Hughes. The 'writer' in songwriter should be underlined here, as The Birthday Letters' new album "Yearning for Vitalists" is a verbally driven take on experimental folk, and one may require a dictionary while listening. It espouses a romantic over scientific worldview across eight alluring tracks.

Hughes switches from drawn-out folkish yarns on the title track to bright jangle pop on "The Baby was Born in the Moss", an intriguing song full of imagination that features a fun middle-eighth instrumental passage. "Indicator Species" is a pleasant folktronica tune with snappy drums, funky bass, and treated vocals. An indicator species is "an organism that serves as a measure of the environmental conditions that exist in a given locale." I didn't know that before hearing this album, which is a testament to the educational quality of Hughes' songs. However, some things, like what any of these songs are actually about, can't be Googled. "Orangutans" is generously garnished with ethereal synths and firework electric guitar, and the fingerpicking and vocal delivery sound like what would have happened had Fionn Regan hung out with Syd Barrett. "Living Like A Mystic" is a surprising track; it is actually accessible, to the extent that it sounds like a hit single. With its trendy arpeggiated glitches and its lyrical hooks ("You fill me up, a human, 'cus that's enough"), it's the most potent track here and one I'll undoubtedly be returning to. 

"Yearning for Vitalists" is full of imagination and intrigue, and most tracks exhilarate with their high-spirited melodies and tempos. At times, Hughes' grandiloquence makes relating to any of the songs difficult, but therein lies the theme; the veneration of vitalism over scientism, the vague over the explicit. A whimsical listen.