Album Review: Jonathan Coulton, “Artificial Heart”

Posted: January 15, 2012 in Uncategorized
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If you know me, you know that I love me some JoCo. In fact, I once wrote a story that is basically a Jonathan Coulton song in prose form. So when I heard that the Elvis of nerd-rock was coming out with a new album (Artificial Heart) last year, I was excited– and a little nervous. For one thing, I love old-school Jonathan Coulton, all those classic songs about zombies and mad scientists and self-loathing giant squids and monkey butlers named Brian Dennehy. From what I’d heard, there wasn’t as much of that kind of geek comedy on the album. Furthermore, it’s the first album that Coulton has used studio musicians, and I was wondering if that would completely ruin the charm of his songs.

I had nothing to worry about.

This is the best Jonathan Coulton album ever. I must have listened to it twenty or thirty times by now.

In a lot of ways, it’s a huge departure from traditional JoCo music. Most of JoCo’s songs can be divided into three categories:

  1. Funny Songs (e.g. First of May)
  2. Geeky Songs (e.g. Mandelbrot Set)
  3. Character Songs (e.g. I Crush Everything)

Let me clarify what I mean by “character songs”. A character song is about a character who is unusual or bizarre doing strange things.

Wow, that was a terrible description, wasn’t it? Well, let me clarify by example. Some JoCo character songs include a middle-management douchebag who has turned into a zombie (Re: Your Brains), a teenaged geek who has cyborg date rape fantasies (The Future Soon), a mad scientist who falls in love with the girl he kidnaps (Skullcrusher Mountain), and a man who is incapable of talking about his feelings and so projects them onto his monkey butler during arguments with his girlfriend (My Monkey). These are the sorts of bizarre characters that exist in traditional Jonathan Coulton songs.

None of the songs on Artificial Heart really fit into any of these categories. In fact, with the exception of “Still Alive” and “Want You Gone” (which are from the perspective of GLaDoS, the psychotic computer from the Portal games), there aren’t any songs about weird people and their bizarre behaviors. (Okay, fine, I guess there’s “Je Suis Rick Springfield”, which is about either Rick Springfield or a guy in a French bar claiming to be Rick Springfield. That’s pretty weird.)

What are the songs about, then? Well, there’s songs about teenagers wanting to be adults (The Stache), the difficulties of adult relationships (Alone at Home); growing older (Glasses); normal, non-geeky/destructive love (The World Belongs to You, Down Today); and the banality of modern working life (Good Morning Tucson). Plus, there’s  “Nobody Loves You Like Me”, which is one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard.

Now, JoCo has written some sad songs in the past. Or rather, I think they’re songs that are trying to be sad, but the ridiculousness of their premise gets in the way of the actual sadness. For example, there’s “I Crush Everything”, which, as has been mentioned before, is about a giant squid who hates himself. If the song were about a young geeky boy who hates himself, yeah, that’d be a little sadder. But when you transpose that low self-esteem to a giant squid, it becomes funny.

“Nobody Loves You Like Me”, on the contrary, is heartbreaking. I’ve listened to it over and over again, tearing up every time, and yet I still don’t have any idea what it’s about. As far as I can tell, it’s a story about a musician singing in a bar on the day before his death from lung cancer. But even that doesn’t describe how perfect the song is. It’s sung a cappella, filtered through some sort of device that makes Coulton’s voice distorted. The lack of instrumentation means that we can hear JoCo’s incredible voice, and the sadness within it, with perfect clarity. It’s a song that I can’t describe in words. Plus, it’s joined “The Carnival Is Over” and “Comfortably Numb” as one of the songs that I’d like to hear played at my funeral. (Well, I wouldn’t hear it, of course– I’ll be dead. But other people are going to hear it. You get the picture.)

Of course, not all the songs are unadulterated awesome. Some of the songs are pretty weak. Case in point: “Today With Your Wife”, which is obviously intended to be a sad song, but is just too whiny and melodramatic to work. Plus it features the one instrument that turns me off completely from any song intended to be sad: the Emotional Piano. And then there’s “Sucker Punch”, which seems kind of like JoCo trying to write a power punk song, and not really succeeding. But other than a couple less-good songs, the album is pure solid gold.

I can’t mention Artificial Heart without bringing up the high production values. For previous albums, JoCo used a home studio, playing all the instruments and producing the music himself. Artificial Heart is produced by They Might Be Giants’ John Flansburgh, with an ensemble of backing singers and studio musicians. Instead of making the album sound slick and empty, the professional production values make the album that much better, adding a new dimension to the music. Again, I can’t describe it: somehow, I suppose that there must be a musicational-type person out there who could articulate it better.

Suffice to say, I will attempt to sum up how I feel about Artificial Heart below:

Artificial Heart is to Jonathan Coulton’s previous discography as A Storm of Swords is to A Feast for Crows. It is the difference between a Rorschach Test on fire and being punched in the solar plexus by a gasoline-doused, flaming Rorschach. It is the point where JoCo becomes less an easily-defined category (geeky folk-rock singer-songwriter) and more something indefinable, something magical. Artificial Heart only cements my love for Coulton’s music, and his position on my ever-shifting list of Top 10 favorite musicians.

But don’t take my word for it. Go out and buy it. If you’re anything like me, you’ll love it.

Final Score: 4 out of 5 zombie monkeys

~ Ian

PS: Here’s a link to JoCo’s website, in case you wanted to buy the album.

 

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