Saturday, 3 September 2011

Review: Artifical Heart


Artificial Heart by

Jonathan Coulton

Anyone who knows me in real life knows that I have an unhealthy obsession with Jonathan Coulton. Having stumbled upon what I’m sure Coulton fans agree to be the equivalent of Radiohead’s “Creep” at the end of the Videogame “Portal”. Any Coulton fan/gamer worth his (or her) salt knows exactly what I’m talking about, the musical piece that brought joy to all those who finished "Portal" known as “Still Alive”.

And while his devout fans who have been following him since his songs were originally posted on Slashdot back when Coulton under went the self-imposed insanity that was “Thing-A-Week” would probably tell me I am not worthy to lick his shoes, “Still Alive” had the effect of making me want more of this mans brilliant song writing.

One compilation album and a live show later and here I am reviewing his new album “Artificial Heart”. I have to say, I really like this album. I bought three other albums the same week “Artificial Heart” was released, including Red Hot Chili Peppers’ new album “I’m With You” and this is by far my favorite one.

The album has a surprising “old rock” feel to it. Especially in the case of the albums opener “Sticking It To Myself”. The song even borders on ska-rock what with its upbeat tempo and brass section. It’s definitely not something that I would expect to hear on a Coulton record but then again his producer, John Flansburg of The Might Be Giants, pushed him outside of many of his comfort zones. For example: Simple chord progressions played on an acoustic guitar are near non-existent on this album.

The album definitely benefits from this and it makes me wonder if it would be as good as what we hear today if Coulton had produced it by himself ala “Thing-A-Week”

After listening to “Sticking It To My Self” a few times (it is highly infectious, I fell in love with this track instantly) I can’t help but wonder; Is this the autobiographical song about Coulton quitting his day job? Everyone assumed that “Code Monkey” was that song but he confirmed on several occasions that it wasn’t about him and was only semi-autobiographical.

Is this then the song about him quitting in search of greener e-pastures containing songs about the future and sea monsters? It certainly appears that way as Coulton sings

“Makes me feel
Like I'd do anything it takes to be
A fucking winner now”

This is highly speculative of course but when you examine all the evidence, you can see why people would assume that. Especially in the case of the chorus

“See all the accolades

Sitting up on my shelf

I’m the man now

And I’m sticking it to myself”

Who knows, maybe the Code Monkey got tired and finally quit his job. It could be any number of things, and, as with all music it’s open to interpretation especially in the case of this album but we’ll get to that later.

Following on from there we have the title track “Artificial Heart”. In this song, Coutlon embraces something I often wish more bands would experiment with: Piano Rock. That’s not to say that there aren’t bands that are entirely piano based I just wish that more conventional artists would break out the piano every once in a while just to shake things up a bit.

It certainly works for Coulton as his vocals begin in an almost haunting fashion unsupported by anything except a simple percussive beat. The piano in this song was about as unexpected as the brass section in the previous song. The fact that a guitar does not then join it is something I applaud Coulton for as I can imagine how much he would have struggled to not add something more to the song. I can imagine how he may have had cause for concern and feel as if the song was too “empty” but the drums and bass do an excellent job of filling the space.The song is again very catchy. Another easily sing-able and memorable lyric that will not soon leave your head. Here is a small spoiler for you; the vast majority of the songs here are also like this.

So, we move on to the third track “Nemeses”. The first track released as a preview back in July. It’s the first track from “Artificial Heart” that features guest vocals and it’s a really great one. It’s the first, what I am going to call, very Coulton-esque track from this album. One you can imagine him being very comfortable with.

Is this the reason why he had John Roderick of The Long Winters on vocals for this track? It would definitely make sense for him to see how very much “in his style” this song is and so having a different singer changes things up a little. It definitely works although Roderick upon first listen could very easily be mistaken for Coulton.

The other thing that definitely makes this a trademark Coulton song is the subject matter. A song from the point of view of someone who has a nemesis and all of his insecurities about having said nemesis would be a difficult thing for anyone to pull of but Coulton being highly trained in the ways of Song Fu ™ probably didn’t even break a sweat.

In all seriousness this song is a staple of just how well Coulton deals with subject matters like this one. The ability to take the hero/villain situation and then psychoanalyze the villain is one thing. Turning it into a song is a whole other beast that would make even seasoned songwriters (myself included) cry.

Moving along swiftly to track number four is a neat little number “The World Belongs To You”, a song about being God, or, perhaps any kind of omnipotent deity. This song reminds me a lot of “Just As Long As Me” probably because of how simplistic and folk based both songs are although “The World Belongs To You” is actually a lot less complex containing only a guitar and a ukulele and not much else.

It’s a definite sign of his growth as a musician that he has a song that is similar to one he’s already written and rather than adding to it and making it more complicated he strips it down to make it much more simplistic.

And then we have the absolute heart breaker of the album. With a song title like “Today With Your Wife” you’d be forgiven for thinking of various different things that this song could be about. The truth is it’s an extremely moving piano ballad about a man who takes his friends place by the side of his family after he has passed away. The subject is handled extremely delicately as Coulton slowly reveals the reality of the relationship you’re getting the privilege of seeing.

It’s not often you see a really great twist on a song about mourning the loss of a dear friend but this is a brilliant way of doing it. I certainly didn’t know what to expect from this song but what I was presented with exceeded my expectations and made me feel bad for thinking it would be a cheap song about adultery.

Next up is “Sucker Punch”. A great rock based song about a situation in a bar that goes sour and turns into a fight. It reminds me a lot of songs by Sugarcult if only because of the vocal part in the chorus. It’s maybe a little generic musically in terms of the rest of the album but it’s not bad by any means.

“Glasses”, previously known to Coulton fans as “Untitled Song About Marriage”, is about just that. Being married and having kids and how you deal with it. It’s a brilliant little insight into the world of the wedded and how your world seemingly falls apart as time flies by faster than you care to notice.

This song is another catchy number and is almost presented as an accompaniment to “Sucker Punch” when you listen to the tracks one after the other. They don’t fade into each other but the way the drums stop and pick up again almost seems like that’s what’s being suggested.

Then we have “Je Suis Rick Springfield”. Which is possibly the silliest song on the whole album. A song entirely in French about a Frenchman trying to convince some ladies in a bar (are the guys from Sucker Punch and this French dude at the same bar!?) that he is indeed Rick Springfield. That’s the entire explanation given by Coulton himself at PAX the first time he played it. Musically, the song holds up well in it’s own right. It is, yet again, very catchy though it may take some a while to learn the lyrics what with it being in French.

“Alone At Home” is a song that appears to have gone through quite a drastic change since it’s conception. What was once quite a slow and passive-aggressive song about shopping has been sped up and rocked out and turned into an aggressive rock number...about shopping. It makes sense that Coulton would do this as his characters almost always take a passive-aggressive stance in his songs and he breaks that norm by speeding the song up. It definitely makes sense though I can’t make my mind up whether or not I prefer this version or the slower one. I’m sure it will grow on me in time.

“Fraud” is an odd beast. This sort of acoustic riff is accompanied with this crazy muted synth bass line. It’s really cool and odd at the same time. The part that was really weird about this track was the part where the song slows down and we get clips of Coulton singing that sound like they were pasted together with no effort to make them blend well together. Almost like Coulton had broken out his Zendrum mid-song.

As for what it’s about? I guess it could be a commentary about the TV and various other platforms trying to sell a bunch of stuff with using baseless claims but then the chorus doesn’t really make much sense in that context:

“Sharp teeth, test your skin

Too late, you let an angel in”

I really am not sure. It really is a very strange song, even stranger than one about falling in love with Big Foot.

“Good Morning Tucson” was the second song released as a preview earlier this month and is yet another “Coulton Staple” song. One about those guys who have to get up and go to the TV studio to do the early early morning news. This is another song where you can tell that Coulton is in his element. Songs like this one were what made the vast majority of his “Thing-A-Week” project but even so you can hear how much better Coulton is at songwriting.

The song is a great insight in to just how soul-crushing sitting in front of a camera this early in the morning every day really is and just how odd it would be to see your face plastered onto billboards across town.

“Now I Am an Arsonist” sounds like a hilarious song but in reality it’s a cool little folk duet between Coulton and Suzanne Vega. Coulton stated when he first played the song on Joco Cruise Crazy “This is one of those impressionistic songs which even I don’t understand” so it could really be about anything.

From what I’ve taken from it, it could be about the modern day Icarus when you examine the last portion of the lyrics:

Now I am an arsonist, seven miles high
Burning through the air I breathe, thunder in the sky
My engine sings as it melts this pair of wings
That only I can see

Touch the sun, my eyes wide open unbelieving
Catch a breath, the only one who's left is leaving

Now I am an arsonist

Others speculate that it could be about the Columbia or Challenger space shuttle disasters from the point of view of the ship itself. Either idea could work equally well and it is totally up for anyone to interpret.

“Down Today” is probably the best “breaking up and getting over it” song I have ever heard. Mostly because of how happy sounding it is. Just the way it starts out on the Ukulele and slowly builds up from there is great. It’s also highly infectious. Seriously, if you hate having songs stuck in your head, avoid this whole album.This song could easily lift the spirits of even someone who isn’t going through a break-up.

“Dissolve” is yet another song that could be about anything. “This song is about a mysterious box. Mysterious, even to me, the writer of the song” Coulton says before playing the song live in Northampton MA the year previous. All that we know is that the contents of said box is “something bad” which isn’t a lot to go on.

It starts out with this awesome funk riff and goes into an almost rock-ballad type chorus. Once again, highly infectious. I didn’t know it was possible to get the majority of an album stuck in your head before this one existed.

Nearing the end portion of the album we have “Nobody Loves You Like Me” which I had the great pleasure of seeing performed live for the first time. The song hasn’t changed much from then either, it’s almost identical to it’s live counter-part.

It’s quite haunting as you hear Coulton sing accompanied by his digitally produced harmonies. We’re once again back inside a bar (obviously with the guys from “Sucker Punch” and “Je Suis Rick Springfield”) as a lonely man laments being invisible to the world around him.

Returning one last time to one of his most popular songs Coulton re-works “Still Alive” complete with a Theremin intro featuring guest vocalist Sara Quinn. It’s a refreshing re-visit and the song and is definitely different enough to make it stand out against its original counter-part.

My favorite part of this particular track is just after Quinn sings:

So I’m glad I got burned

Think of all the things we learned

For the people who are Still Alive

The songs tone just changes drastically and it settles back into familiar territory with ease. This alone warrants a do-over of this particular song and I again applaud Coulton because going back and re-working fan-favorites is a risky business.

Directly following that is “Want You Gone” which is not all that different from the original version bar it being Coulton signing and the drums are much more pronounced in this version. Hearing Coulton do lead falsetto vocals is also pretty cool.

Rounding everything off is the very first song that Coulton ever mentioned from this album “The Stache” which is a song about…having a moustache. It’s very silly, very catchy and…well do I even need to say any more?

Overall this album manages to feel like it has a theme whilst being different enough to hold your interest and keep you guessing. The sense of wondering what some songs are about is also a nice little touch which I doubt is intentional for the most part.

Hearing new music from Coulton is always a joy for me and it’s great to see a musician who’s stuck it out and not gone with a record label do so well and have a reasonably large following.

Above all, the album seems to be about the lamentation of things that can’t be changed. We will always grow old and hit forty, we will always have jobs we hate, we will always have to go shopping, and we will always grow a moustache.

I’ve been looking forward to this album all year and can safely say it did not disappoint at all. I’m sure that his style is not for everyone but everyone should at least give Coulton’s music a try. Chances are if, like me, you like Still Alive and Want You Gone then you’re going to like his other stuff.

Highly entertaining, extremely well put together and produced. If I hadn’t all ready shaken this mans hand and told him he was awesome, I would.

1 comment:

  1. Great review for a great album, cool to see your insights into the song meanings too! :)