JoCo performing an acoustic set
It doesn’t care about second tries
You’re afraid whatever choice you make
Won’t be exactly the right mistake
Jonathan Coulton’s latest release, Artificial Heart, represents a much larger step that a lot of people might realize. After about eight years of pure solo effort, AH is Coulton’s first effort with a band and produced by someone other than himself. It also breaks with his comfort zone and explores many deeper themes and constants without using the nerdy/comedy song hook that made him internet famous.
To be honest, that’s really the best part of Artificial Heart. People love songs like “Re: Your Brains”, “Skullcrusher Mountain”, and “Code Monkey”, but there have always been greater depths to Coulton’s oeuvre that seemed almost hidden in his back catalog. Artificial Heart hides its comedy/nerdy songs at the tail end, almost as bonus tracks with a haunting rendition of “Still Alive” by Sara Quin, the Coulton version of “Want You Gone”, and the only real clunker on the disc, “The Stache”, a song about, well, mustaches.
The real meat of the album explores Coulton’s professional insecurities, maturing and dealing with the responsibilities of family life, suburban loneliness and despair, and, yes, a silly song in French. I’ll be going into detail, track-by-track, below:
1. Sticking it to Myself
The benefit of the increased production is rocketed right to our ears with this first track. It’s not really miles beyond the complexity of Coulton’s more flashy songs prior to this date, but it feels so much richer than anything that came before. It makes sense for this to be the first track of this new direction Coulton’s taking. It’s brash and loud and Stan Harrison kills on saxophone while Jonathan Coulton himself shreds on electric guitar.
It’s all apt for a sharp statement that Jonathan Coulton refuses to be classified in a specific way. I’m sure the Planet Money profile aired long after this song was done, but I can’t help but hear Coulton’s response in his lyrics.
The references to hostage situations could be interpreted as his perceived shtick holding him back while he also recognizes that said perception was partially created by the music he decided to put out. Still, he still feels that his career is in his own hands.
2. Artificial Heart
Paul and Storm regularly joke about Jonathan Coulton always writing melancholy songs about metaphysical creatures. Both may be true, but my point is that Coulton is a pro at writing the sad song. “Artificial Heart”, like “Not About You”, is a song about a breakup, only it’s a lot more obfuscated than “Not About You”.
His more subtle lyricism is brilliantly at play here in a song that tries to capture the aesthetics of a beating heart. There is a regular and prominent beat throughout the whole thing, but when it all ramps up we’ve got a strong bass drum keeping time.
I’m also rather fond of the piano/keyboard work in this song. It’s a fun song, but I think it’s mid-tier on this album.
One of the few Jonathan Coulton tracks headed by not Jonathan Coulton, John Roderick takes lead vocals here while Coulton harmonizes. Of course, not three tracks into a record I describe as less reliant on geeky topics, “Nemeses” is about a hero trying to get a villain to be his arch-nemesis.
Only it’s deeper feeling than it normally would be. Instead of hovering on the concept like he might have done with humorous lampshade hanging and trope highlighting, Coulton just lets this song be. Roderick’s vocals are smooth and sweet and Coulton’s harmonies add tremendous depth to a song that is as much about a hero who needs a villain as it is about professional jealousy, rivalry, and living up to your potential.
The Japanese seem to almost fetishize the concept of the rival in their anime and video games as a not-necessarily-antagonistic figure who is the motivation and catalyst for realizing your full potential. Here we see something similar in a hero attempting to get the attentions of a villain to make them both better. It’s interesting and I wonder if this is yet another way for Coulton to work out his professional insecurities toward other larger acts as he seeks to grow and expand.
4. The World Belongs to You
On the forefront we have this wonderful song whose main draw is the delicate sounding banjo work about a god whose star has begun to fade as its decisions, ambivalence, and handling has caused his believes to become disillusioned with it.
It’s definitely a stretch, but the themes are also applicable to the kind of meteoric rise to success that some stars have. Their initial success brings them into the spotlight and they can do no wrong. Of course the egomania from fame begins to take shape and while the creative mind of the artist pulls him one way, the demands of the people go another. Our “god” cannot reconcile this with his vision of what is right and sort of writes them off.
“The World Belongs to You” is a really grim and depressing song. I love that Coulton is so skilled at hiding them within really upbeat ditties. The arrangement in here is sparse and delicate, but it doesn’t feel precious. It’s one of the good ones on this album.
5. Today With Your Wife
From the hidden melancholy of “The World Belongs to You” we dive face first into the morose sounding, “Today With Your Wife”. It doesn’t go where you think it might from the title, but it’s more depressing for it.
Even sparser than the last track, this is a pensive piano track. The only other sound, beyond Coulton’s longing voice, comes from brass tones. It creates an empty sound that emphasizes the gap in the situation. Our song narrator is lamenting the fact that someone, probably Coulton, “should have been there” in this nice, soft, touching, close moment he had with his wife.
I see this song as Coulton expressing anxiety over the fact that his touring keeps him away from his home and his family. Being gone so much has to put a strain on them as he is missing these tiny, tender moments. The small moments that really make up real life. It’s touching and sad and precisely the kind of song I love from Jonathan Coulton.
6. Sucker Punch
It’s actually pretty appropriate to have “Sucker Punch” follow “Today With Your Wife” as both deal with responsibility.
“Sucker Punch” is one of those songs that feels obvious on the surface on what it’s about, but I can’t quite see any levels beyond that. It’s a short song, clocking in at under two minutes, and I think it’s about not wanting to grow up, mature, or accept responsibility as everyone else around you does.
There are some neat percussive parts in here that feel more complicated than pre-band Coulton percussion, but not to a highly noticeable one. It’s just the kind of small touch that I feel a dedicated drummer (rather than drum loops) can add.
“Glasses” is another of my favorites on this album. With all the songs about longing for lost loves and suburban depression, it’s good to see a happy song about the people he loves.
It’s not super sweet sounding, since it’s got some hard drumming and guitar work, but it’s sweet in tone. This is a song that celebrates the tiny moments in life and how it’s the tiny things that bring people together, not the grand gestures or moments.
Like I said before, great drums and guitar work in this song and the vocals are sneakily poetic. My favorite section from the song:
“There’s water in the walls
The stairs make waterfalls
Down in the basement the soft sound of a river digging deep”
It’s just a beautiful reflection of the way that water moves and is such a huge element of change, but it’s always so gradual and slow and hidden. Little bits of water able to make rivers able to dig canyons.
8. Je Suis Rick Springfield
This song has got this real lounge singer style to it and it’s perfectly in line with the ridiculous French. I love the xylophone.
I read the English translation of this song and it seems like it may be poking fun at him for the French “Re: Vos Cerveaux”. It’s not meant to be taken that seriously and it’s full of poor French and a hilarious Greek chorus-esque part where the French listeners mock his French. The other great thing about it is that Rick Springfield, assuming he’s talking about the same guy, is Australian, not American.
9. Alone at Home
This song is a lot like “Shop Vac” in its exploration of the vapid, consumer-driven, hidden unhappiness of the American suburban ideal. It’s been done by him and done better thanks to “Shop Vac”‘s haunting news stories in the background.
It’s not a bad song, just not a great one. Got solid band work, just not that interesting to me.
The bass line to this song carries the whole song, but the real beauty comes from the fantastic acoustic work. “Fraud” has a soft sound that belies its message about professional doubt (as I see it).
It’s not the deepest reading of the lyrics, but it certainly seems like it’s about those personal demons that gnaw at you from inside making you think that you’re a fluke and that your success is accidental. Could be that Coulton is making a statement about his doubts in expanding his operation, adding a band, and growing his sound. Is it too coincidental that this song feels most like it could have been an old Coulton song?
“Fraud” has got a great hook in the chorus that I absolutely love. This song ranks among my favorite on the album.
11. Good Morning Tuscon
This feels like the way more happy and mature spiritual sequel to “Code Monkey” in the sense that it’s a song about working and the way that goes, but not in the computer science or romantic way. “Good Morning Tuscon” is a good six years later from “Code Monkey” and the insecurities of youth have given way to a guy who is a lead in his morning show. The protagonist of the song is weary and shocked at how old he’s become, but he’s still able to do his job well. There is a hint of the Coulton melancholy in here too with that line from the chorus:
“I throw to you before I throw the rest away”
It’s definitely a catchy song and I can see why it was one of the first cuts that JoCo released online in advance of the album.
12. Now I Am An Arsonist
“Now I Am an Arsonist” is an absolutely beautiful song that is layered so deep that I can’t quite decipher its meaning. It’s full of imagery about heat, height, flight, construction, and destruction. I mean, it’s pretty much a story of a relationship that didn’t seem to work out with neat shifting perspectives, but, like I said, I can’t quite parse out all of the imagery. I can say that even the somber talk about an astronaut burning up in the atmosphere is absolutely beautiful.
Suzanne Vega does most of the heavy lifting on this song, with JoCo harmonizing and singing only one verse. Her voice is haunting and beautiful, which appears to be the two qualities Coulton is looking for in his duet partners, but that haunting aspect is helped along by sparse instrumentation (ie: little to none). I love this song. I don’t think I get it yet, but I love it.
13. Down Today
Both chipper and bitter, “Down Today” centers around a dude who is rubbing his new relationship in his ex’s face. Rather like “Not About You”, we’ve got contrasting lyrics with Coulton singing about not “coming down”, but all the time that he’s up he’s obsessing about ridding himself of his ex. It’s the kind of contradictory lyric that Coulton does reasonably well and it doesn’t feel that old.
Unfortunately, “Down Today” is stuck between two far better songs so, despite how much I dig this song when I hear it, I rarely remember it compared to “Now I Am an Arsonist” and “Dissolve”
A lot of this album seems to move in phases about similar topics. This relationship phase kind of ends with “Dissolve”. Where “Now I Am an Arsonist” feels like a relationship in progress, but headed toward failure and “Down Today” feels like a guy who has recently ended a relationship, “Dissolve” seems to be long after that relationship has ended. In fact, it appears to end with the character breaking up with a new person. Throughout the song we see how the character has learned from his failed relationship, but that while the changes seem to have made him stronger, he’s not above doing the same thing to someone else.
This song is my favorite one on the entire album. It resonated with me from the first listen onward. Everything about it is so great and I think it’s where the entire band concept congeals best. The bass line is wicked, the drums are hot, the guitars are sharp, and JoCo’s lyrics are perfect. This is the song that makes it happen. I especially love that last verse with its sparse bass and drum portion. So much fun.
15. Nobody Loves You Like Me
The most popular interpretation of this song is about an aging musician dying of throat/lung cancer resulting from too hard a life. It’s supported by the constant references to death, breathing, lungs, even an overt reference to smoking. The theory is even supported by the heavy vocoder use that makes Coulton’s voice sound like it’s coming from one of those throat vocoders for throat cancer patients.
It’s also readable as an embittered lover at the end of a relationship with its references to divorce papers. Let’s just say it’s a nuanced song.
There’s barely any instrumentation aside from the heavy vocal processing and it does create a sad, lonely feeling. It’s a good song, but it feels like it’s over before it starts because of how quickly it moves.
16. Still Alive
This version is sung by Sara Quin whose petite voice contrasts pretty deeply with Ellen McLain’s GLaDOS. There’s spooky theremin work and it makes for a sweeter, but sadder version of the song. Quin doesn’t quite hit the emotional notes as hard as McClain does in the game, but it’s different and good enough that you’ll like listening to it even though you’re probably sick of “Still Alive” by now.
I’m not sure I like Coulton harmonizing in this, but it’s relatively inoffensive. Just feels a little unnecessary and like it’s stronger with only Quin’s voice to guide us.
17. Want You Gone
This is my favorite of the two Portal songs and it’s interesting to hear Coulton’s voice versus McLain/GLaDOS. It’s almost a bummer that it’s from Portal 2, because the elements stand on its own…aside from the Caroline reference.
The instrumentation is almost identical to the game version minus one or two touches that I particularly loved from the original. Still, it’s a good song and I was happy to see the non-game versions on the disc instead. I think “Want You Gone” works better in Coulton’s voice than “Still Alive”, so I’m glad to see that he got Quin for that too.
18. The Stache
My least favorite song on the disc. Maybe I don’t fetishize mustaches enough, but it’s kind of dumb and I don’t like it. The music is fine, but the lyrics are too stupid for me to love.
Ok, ok, it has its moments. It’s not that bad, just not my favorite. That’s why I devised that bonus track idea about the album.
Artificial Heart is a bold step in a new direction for Jonathan Coulton. Purists might not dig the new production or the new direction, but I think it represents tremendous growth for JoCo and I hope to see much more along these lines in the future. Coulton has always been much more than the deceptively simple, geeky songs that made him popular and while I do love those, I’m happy to see him move away from being pigeonholed as a niche performer.