Back in May, NPR’s Planet Money ran a piece on Jonathan Coulton.
In it, host Alex Blumberg detailed the numerous things that set Coulton apart from other singer-songwriters. His business exists almost entirely on the Internet. He owns all of his own music, and sells it (or gives it away) as he pleases – his website allows you to hear every song he’s made in full. His songs are passed around like candy online – he releases everything under a Creative Commons license, so fans can make their own videos, or perform covers, or create remixes freely, so long as they credit Coulton. His topics are often geeky, but they are just as often sad and heartwarming and human.
Coulton doesn’t have a label, or tour support, or any of the things “the industry” seems to think you need to make it as a start-up in the music biz. His tour support is basically staying in touch with his fanbase. He plays wherever he knows there will be an audience. And he does all right for himself – Coulton revealed during the podcast that he made about half a million dollars in 2010.
Most of this flies directly in the face of the old record-label model that is crumbling around our ears. But instead of asking serious questions about how (and why) online music-making works, Blumberg brought in a pair of “experts” from NPR’s music blog, The Record, and they proceeded to dismiss Coulton as a fluke. His business model works for him, they said, but doesn’t point to any replicable way forward. They even compared him to a Snuggie. It wasn’t pretty, and Coulton rightly took umbrage on his site.
While Coulton patiently pointed out that his business model is the same as every recording artist’s has ever been – make good songs, sell them, play shows for people who like them – I just shook my head. Every time people talk about Jonathan Coulton and his unique path to success, they miss the important thing, the reason his fans adore him and buy his music, even though they don’t have to. It’s frustratingly simple: Coulton writes fantastic songs.
I first heard his work in 2007, after he’d wrapped up his massive year-long Thing-a-Week project. Essentially, Coulton wrote and recorded one song a week, and released them for free online, collecting them on CDs later. I listened to three songs – “Re: Your Brains,” a satire of office-memo-speak with zombies; “Code Monkey,” a wonderful rocker about a lonely programmer; and “I’m Your Moon,” a remarkably romantic love song to Pluto from one of its moons. I may have also heard “I Crush Everything,” the tale of a self-loathing giant squid, but by that point I was hooked. I bought everything Coulton had for sale immediately.
It was the songs, the beautifully-written, funny-sad, utterly hummable songs that did it for me. I didn’t know any of the backstory at that point, and I didn’t care. Here was a guy making unique, smart pop music, and I wasn’t thinking at all about record labels or The Future of Music. I was just thinking about how much I love “I’m Your Moon.” I don’t know for certain, but I’d bet my experience is similar to that of many Coulton fans.
If you need any proof that it’s the songs that made Coulton what he is, you need to hear Artificial Heart, his just-released new album. It’s his eighth release, but for many people, this will be their first Coulton album. It is his first recorded in a studio, his first with a real band, and his first with an outside producer: John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants. He’s hinted that it will also be his first to receive a full-on marketing push.
And in keeping with that, Artificial Heart is the first Coulton album to leave most of his geeky novelty tendencies behind. Prior hits have come equipped with easy hooks – “Here’s a song about a prison planet run by robots,” or, “Here’s one about an evil genius in love.” The songs on Artificial Heart are about complex relationships, about pain and grief and bitterness. They’re almost surprisingly dark and knotty, and the album as a whole is Coulton’s bleakest.
That it’s still truckloads of fun is testament to his skill as a writer. In fact, the whole record seems designed to show off Coulton’s writing – he clearly pushed himself here, determined to break free of his reputation, but also to bring his audience along with him. The whiplash opener “Sticking It To Myself” announces right away that things are different – the electric guitars practically jump out of the speakers, and the very TMBG horns add an expansive (and expensive) feel that JoCo has never delivered before. But the song is classic – it’s about hating yourself for success. (“See all the accolades sitting there on my shelf, I’m the man now, and I’m sticking it to myself…”)
“Artificial Heart” is the perfect name for a Jonathan Coulton song, calling to mind both science fiction concepts and the emotional distance that the song is really about. It’s a piano-pounding mini-epic with an indelible chorus, and the mechanical drum pattern only underscores the theme. “I’ve got a new heart, it’s not a real heart…” And the great “Nemeses” is another classic Coulton tune, a desperate plea to a bitter enemy who, it becomes clear, doesn’t see the relationship the same way. “You pretend that you don’t even know my name, well played…”
Coulton is so confident as a writer here that he even gives the mic to guest vocalists on three tracks, including “Nemeses,” which is sung by John Roderick of the Long Winters. I admit some dismay when I first listened to the studio version – the song is so quintessentially JoCo that hearing a different voice up front is jarring. In the context of the record, though, it works. There are a lot of firsts for Coulton here, and guest lead vocals are just one of them.
And one of the record’s finest tracks is another with a guest vocal: “Now I Am an Arsonist,” a duet with Suzanne Vega. I am honestly not sure what this wistful-sounding piece is about – its two main characters trade metaphors throughout, one taking on the role of an architect “setting up the sea,” the other an arsonist “burning through the air I breathe.” In the end, one is left, the other leaving, and it’s simply beautiful. Vega’s instantly-recognizable voice lends a heft to it, one the lyrics definitely deserve.
But the best songs here are the ones Coulton kept for himself. There is “Glasses,” which brings to mind Marshall Crenshaw – it’s a raw guitar-pop gem about marriage, and about growing old together. It’s full of tiny, wonderful details: “House shifts into place, a little breathing space, the radiators and the floorboards will argue while we sleep…” Coulton takes a blissful approach to time flying by: “There goes a day, fading as it passes, forget the grey, let it fall apart, it’s OK, I like you in glasses.”
Elsewhere, Coulton – by his own account a happily-married father – takes a dim view of family life in “Alone at Home.” It starts with the line, “I am glad to be shopping here with you,” so you can imagine where it goes. (Subsequent verses begin with the lines “I would love to swing by the candle store” and “We can stop at your parents’ on the way.”) It’s bitter and disconnected and vicious. It also rocks like a suburban house on fire. The striking “Dissolve” also takes relationships apart, to a slightly funky beat.
“Good Morning Tuscon” is similarly dark, if more fun. It’s sung from the point of view of a longtime TV anchor who hates his life: “When I don’t like what they talk about I take the earpiece out, but they just cue me through the window.” In the final verse, the world ends while our hero keeps on reporting, winging it after the prompter dies. “Through the smoke beyond my parking space, I see my giant face on the billboard by the highway…”
The heart of this album, however, can be found at track five. The deceptively funny title “Today With Your Wife” hides a song of real pain and astounding beauty – as it unspools, it becomes clear that the “you” of the title is dead, and his friends and family are mourning. The plaintive chorus (“You should have been there”) just knocks me out. This is one of JoCo’s finest songs, heartfelt and sad and wonderful, and its gentle piano-and-horns arrangement here is perfect.
As far as I am concerned, Artificial Heart proper ends with track 15, “Nobody Loves You Like Me,” a bleak a cappella piece about divorce. The last three songs are bonus tracks in my mind – you get the two songs Coulton wrote for the Portal video games, the Internet-famous “Still Alive” (sung here by Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara) and “Want You Gone.” And then you get “The Stache,” a facile and surface-level tune about growing a mustache. It’s very old-school JoCo, like a song he may have come up with during the early days of Thing-a-Week, and it stands out on an album that regularly digs deeper.
Still, I wouldn’t have wanted Coulton to reject “The Stache,” or the similarly jokey “Je Suis Rick Springfield.” For all the maturity and complexity Coulton shows as a songwriter on Artificial Heart, he still writes funny songs about silly things, and even if that side of his work is less represented on this record, it remains an essential part of what he does. Throughout the rest of Artificial Heart, Coulton proves himself a tremendous observational songwriter – his work here has depth and power, and yes, very real heart. This record states his case beautifully, and it deserves at least this: that any conversation about it focus on the music, not the method of its release.
To paraphrase “Still Alive,” Artificial Heart is a triumph, another of my favorite records of 2011. You can (and should) get it here.
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So this is the second week in a row that a surprise release has bumped my trio of recently-unveiled comeback records out of the top spot. With the September deluge coming, I don’t expect I’ll have a lot of time and space to get to them. So let’s dispense with them now, since none of them are particularly good.
First up is the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Their 10th album is called I’m With You, and it marks the exit of swell guitarist John Frusciante. He’s replaced by Josh Klinghoffer, who sounds like him, but with all the personality sucked out. So there goes your last reason to pay attention to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. This whole album is full of anonymous, slicked-up nothings. If you enjoyed Stadium Arcadium, you may find something to like here. Me, I find it all pretty boring.
Mike Doughty fares better on his fifth solo album, Yes and Also Yes – at least for a while. It opens strong, with some of the best rhythmic-acoustic songs Doughty has written in years. Roseanne Cash even stops by for one of them, the nifty “Holiday.” But after that, the record goes off a cliff, weighed down by minute-long filler tracks and poorly-thought-out ditties. It’s a real shame, because for a short while there, I thought I was listening to the second coming of Haughty Melodic.
Faring best of all, surprisingly, is Lenny Kravitz, with his long-awaited funk-based project Black and White America. If you like Lenny’s retro style, which draws from the work of 12 million other artists, you may quite like this. It’s his best work in some time, and much better than the abysmal Baptism. And hell, Trombone Shorty is on it, doing what he does very well. But it’s still a bunch of simplistic platitudes set to music, and appearances by Drake and Jay-Z (the latter on a song called “Boongie Drop,” about which I will say nothing more) bring it down. If I were handing out letter grades, this would get a C+. Not bad, but not worth hearing more than once.
Whew! Glad that’s out of my system. Next week, a whole ton of new stuff, including records by Lindsey Buckingham, Dream Theater, and Neil Finn’s new band Pajama Club, and the farewell release by Glen Campbell. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.