Zombies, Robots, Giant Squids and Broken Hearts
The Wonderful World of Jonathan Coulton

Well, it didn’t happen.

I wondered last week where I was going to find the time to finish my massive Frank Zappa buyer’s guide project, and as it turned out, I didn’t. I’m pretty far along, but not done, and I don’t want to post this in installments, as it’s going to be eight interconnected pages. It needs to debut all at once, and now I’m shooting for one of the barren weeks in February. There are a couple, so we’ll see if I can land this beast on one of them.

Of course, that leaves me with nothing to write about this week. Or it would have, if not for the internet. But thanks to this glorious series of tubes, I found a new musical obsession last Saturday, and his songs have become like old friends over the past seven days. I’m apparently really late to this party, but I’m glad I finally made my way there.

I’m talking about Jonathan Coulton. Or JoCo to his friends.

I was directed to Coulton’s website from a message board I frequent. I listened to three songs, and then plunked down my cash for everything the man’s ever done. And I’ll tell you, it was probably the best $70 I’ve spent in a while. Coulton is a witty writer with an ear for great melodies, and he combines the best parts of Barenaked Ladies (before they started to suck) and Fountains of Wayne, with a touch of Dr. Demento. His songs are geeky, funny, sad and triumphant, and they deserve to be heard on a wider stage.

Much of the press attention Coulton gets centers on his unique marketing methods. His website allows you to hear every song in full, and buy each one individually or as an album set. You can purchase CDs from Coulton, too, but one gets the sense that printing up physical discs is merely a concession to an old paradigm for him. He’s an internet artist through and through, and he releases everything under a Creative Commons license, which means that anyone else is free to use his material for their own projects, as long as they a) don’t make any money off of it, and b) they link back to his site.

So naturally, YouTube is full of homemade Jonathan Coulton videos, ranging from fully animated concept pieces to single-camera shots of people dancing. Coulton counts on this exposure to spread his name across the net, and as far as I can tell, it’s working wonders. He records his songs at home, using professional digital equipment, and then he releases them into the world, and watches the lives they live. And with each new video or podcast or what have you, more people hear his work, and more of them find their way to his site.

But that’s not the best of it. In September 2005, Coulton embarked on a year-long experiment he called Thing-a-Week. Basically, he recorded a song a week, and released each one as a podcast on Fridays, and he kept that up for a full year. By the end, Thing-a-Week became an internet sensation, and to hear him tell it, the experiment increased his audience considerably. I missed out on Thing-a-Week while it was happening, of course, but I can easily imagine racing home on Fridays to check for the new song. It’s a fascinating and very effective approach.

But you know what? I don’t want to talk about any of that. I want to talk about the songs, because they’re at the heart of the matter. And Coulton’s songs are the best kind of pop music – warm and funny and touching and simply bursting with ideas. Those ideas are often about monkeys and robots and zombies, but they are just as often about people orbiting around each other, and the interesting ways they interact.

Coulton’s first album, 2003’s Smoking Monkey, is hit or miss, and sometimes self-consciously silly, but it is a fun half-hour. It includes a couple of smirking winners, like “Ikea,” a They Might Be Giants-esque anthem to the world’s greatest discount store, and “First of May,” a sweet ode to… well, I don’t want to ruin that one if you haven’t heard it. But the record is weighed down by brick-subtle numbers like “Over There” and “I’m a Mason Now,” songs that pale in comparison to later efforts.

2004’s follow-up EP Where Tradition Meets Tomorrow is a huge improvement, taking Coulton’s melodic pop to geeky new heights. The first three songs are all classics – “The Future Soon” starts off as a tale of grade school embarrassment, but ends up being about robot wars in a far-flung decade, and “Skullcrusher Mountain” concerns an evil genius in love with his latest captive. (“I’m so into you, but I’m way too smart for you, even my henchmen think I’m crazy, I’m not surprised that you agree…”)

But it’s “I Crush Everything,” a sad ballad about a self-loathing giant squid, that fully establishes the Coulton style. You would never expect a song about a sea creature to move you, but this one will – Coulton manages to find the sadness, the desperation, and the humanity in his science fiction concepts, doing what all good sci-fi should do. Oh, and he composes heartbreaking melodies, too. I’ve had “I Crush Everything” stuck in my head a dozen times this week, and I’m not tired of it yet.

And then there is Thing-a-Week.

Coulton’s year-long endeavor is collected on four CDs, one for each season, with corresponding mini-vinyl-style sleeves, all packaged in a tin box. All 52 songs are here, with the exception of “When I’m 25 or 64,” a copyright-violating mash-up. And as a whole, it offers the most complete picture of Coulton’s particular brand of genius.

The best thing about Thing-a-Week, though, is that you can hear Coulton blossoming and maturing as a songwriter before your ears. The first volume is a mixed bag, with found-sound experiments like “W’s Duty” and “Sibling Rivalry,” novelty tunes like “Podsafe Christmas Song” and a folksy cover of “Baby Got Back.” (Okay, that last one is brilliant.) At track four is “Shop Vac,” the disc’s one undisputed keeper – it’s an exploration of suburban half-life, with an entire bridge about taking a left turn into Starbucks. But otherwise, Coulton’s warning about the relative quality of his Thing-a-Week material seems spot-on.

But a funny thing happened about halfway through Thing-a-Week Two: Coulton started taking this experiment as the challenge it was meant to be, and began turning out his best work. There’s “Chiron Beta Prime,” of course, a Christmas card from a family held captive by robots, but there is also “A Talk With George,” a deeper song about conversing with the ghost of George Plimpton, and there is the aforementioned “Re: Your Brains,” detailing a business meeting between a zombie and his victims. (Imagine the Misfits singing a ‘90s pop song after watching Office Space.) Mix in fine covers of Beatles and Rick Springfield songs, and an anthem for the unlikeliest of Olympic events (“Curl”), and you have a winner.

Here’s the thing, though – Coulton was just getting warmed up. Thing-a-Week Three and Thing-a-Week Four are superb pop records by any definition – the sound experiments are all but gone, the novelty tunes take a back seat, and in their place are song after song of melodic bliss, each one with its own high concept. The third volume includes “Code Monkey,” a should-be smash hit about a hapless software engineer in love. There’s also wimp-seduction ballad “Soft Rocked By Me” and kickass breakup song “Not About You,” but the highlight might be “When You Go,” an a cappella stunner.

Thing-a-Week Four contains “Creepy Doll,” his Danny Elfman-esque four-minute horror movie, but it also has hard-luck anthem “Big Bad World One,” sweet parenting song “You Ruined Everything,” and “Pull the String,” a psychodrama about secrets. And at track eight is one of the most perfect love songs in my collection, called “I’m Your Moon.” It’s a love letter to Pluto from its moon Charon, written shortly after Pluto was declassified as a planet, and it is defiantly beautiful: “I’m your moon, you’re my moon, we go round and round, from out here, it’s the rest of the world that looks so small, promise me you will always remember who you are…”

Coulton wrapped up Thing-a-Week last August with an unlikely cover of “We Will Rock You,” but he did it in a way that symbolized his connection with his fanbase. He asked his fans to record a single handclap and send it to him, and he assembled all those claps into the famous backbeat of the song. Then, naturally, he bluegrassed it up, and as an encore, he gave “We Are the Champions” a low-key arrangement, as if sung by a weary mountain climber surveying how far he’s come. It sounds strange, but it’s the perfect conclusion.

In the end, Coulton delivered a set of surprisingly warm and well-crafted songs, and it’s kind of amazing that he managed one of these a week. It’s also kind of amazing that he’s remained obscure, with a pen so prolific and witty. So here’s my attempt to spread the word: Go here to hear anything and everything he’s done, and then buy what you like. And then, tell a few people and send them to the site. Someone this good deserves all the support I can muster for him.

Some places to start:

“Ikea” and “First of May” off of Smoking Monkey.

“The Future Soon” and “I Crush Everything” off of Where Tradition Meets Tomorrow.

“Shop Vac” and “Baby Got Back” off of Thing-a-Week One.

“A Talk With George” and “Re: Your Brains” off of Thing-a-Week Two.

“Code Monkey” and “When You Go” off of Thing-a-Week Three.

“Big Bad World One” and “I’m Your Moon” off of Thing-a-Week Four.

Or, you know, just pick a song and start listening. I hope you like Coulton’s music as much as I do.

Next week, the Shins return with Wincing the Night Away, and as if that weren’t enough, we have the Brothers Martin album and the new Of Montreal, too. The following week sees Pain of Salvation’s already-controversial Scarsick and the second album from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.

Also, Marillion announced the track listing for their 14th album, Somewhere Else, this week. The follow-up to the 100-minute Marbles is half that length and contains 10 songs, and one of them is “Faith,” a tune they’ve been playing live since 2003. Early reports compare the record to Afraid of Sunlight, which may be my favorite Marillion album, and “Faith” certainly fits in with that style – it’s a gorgeous acoustic song that should be a terrific closer. The album’s out on April 9, and I’m counting the days…

See you in line Tuesday morning.