Jonathan Coulton’s new album, Artificial Heart, is now available for download and purchase at the link above. Debuting by way of a tweet during his appearance at Dragon*Con this week, the album is being released first on his own website, then iTunes and other digital outlets this weekend, with physical discs to arrive later this fall. It’s 18 tracks of (mostly) new material, and the first album recorded in a real studio with a full band.
I’m a big JoCo fan. Something about his solid folk-rock style with core pop sensibilities, smart writing, and strong musical background make his music compelling and so enjoyable to me. I’ve seen him in concert 3 times with my wife, and have enjoyed every one. He’s a good performer, both engaging and funny.
The new album is a bit different than his past offerings. Recording with a full band, and produced by John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants, the songs have a crisper sound, and much more efficiently paced (the average track length for the 18 song album is under 3 minutes). There’s definitely a TMBG influence felt in the arranging and instrumentation on some of these songs. The opening track, ‘Sticking it to Myself’ has a horn section behind aggressive, chompy, distorted guitars. ’Today with Your Wife’, a decidedly more somber tune than the name implies, is completely piano driven song. We’re not given many songs here about zombies and giant squid. There’s humor here, but there are also songs of loss, and some lyrical exploration of themes without a defined narrative, which is a bit different than the JoCo of the past. There are moments on this album where Coulton reminds you he’s a professional musician, not just a funny guy with music theory knowledge behind him.
Among the new songs are some collaborations with other artists. For Nemeses, he brings in John Roderick from The Long Winters to handle vocals. ’Now I Am An Arsonist’ is a duet with Suzanne Vega, who’s voice adds a lovely but haunting quality to the acoustic song. And then there’s the new version of ‘Still Alive’, featuring Sara of Tegan and Sara on vocal work. This song flows right into ‘Want You Gone’ as a nice little Portal couplet.
The album is not without it’s flaws. John Roderick’s inclusion is somewhat odd. He does a fine job on the vocals, but given that ‘Nemeses’ is arguably one of the most traditionally JoCo-sounding songs on the album, it’s just odd not to hear Coulton sing it himself. The new version of ‘Still Alive’ features a theramin intro that feels tacked on. Were it a separate song unto itself, it would make more sense. But the transition from intro to the song proper is abrupt. And staying with that same song, Sara does a decent job with the vocals, but Coulton handles the few spots of backing vocals. This is a minor point, but the song is from a singular point of view, a single angry character singing to someone, and when Coulton’s voice comes in for backing vocals, it breaks the narrative somewhat. Like someone else was there. I’m being picky, but this song doesn’t seem like a vocal duet.
Those small concerns aside, I’m really pleased with this album. If you’ve read any of the preceding, you know I’m not a professional writer, or music critic. But I like Jonathan Coulton, and I’m enjoying this record. If you’re a fan of the zombies and code monkeys and squids and space dog Jonathan Coulton, you’re going to have a bit of a learning curve here, as I did. But there’s a growth in musicianship, production, and composition here that makes it all worthwhile.