So over the last couple of days, I’ve been listening to Jonathan Coulton’s new album, Artificial Heart. It’s his first new music in quite a while, and you can tell. There’s a big difference between his last web releases and the tracks on this album, both in production quality and overall sound. But there’s no mistake: the king of geek pop is back, and he feels fantastic.
The album feels more “grown-up” than his previous efforts, as far as the production quality. It’s still got that not-quite-polished charm, but the quality is certainly higher, and there are more instruments involved on this album than there have been in the past. This shouldn’t be any surprise, given that Coulton’s biggest excitement about the album was the chance to work with John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants. Additionally, there are some really great contributions from other artists, all of which sound fantastic – my personal favorite example of this is Now I Am An Arsonist, featuring Suzanne Vega, who I’d never heard of before listening to this track. Her voice adds a haunting sincerity to the lyrics, which is sometimes a stumbling point for new listeners of Coulton’s, given that his songs often have unusual subject material. I’ll definitely be checking out her other music as a result of hearing her on this track.
But that’s one thing that felt very different to me on this album: there were no really “goofy” tracks except the closer, The Stache, and possibly the completely-sung-in-French track, Je Suis Rick Springfield. Certainly there are still the odd metaphors and quirky phrases, but the album somehow feels more “serious” in nature, despite the subjects of several songs being typical JoCo fare – astronauts, heart surgery, and aperture science. (Yes, that’s right – both Portal songs are found on this album, and Sara Quin sings “Sill Alive!”)
There are three really standout tracks to me that will be stuck in my head for the next week, at least: first, the aforementioned Now I Am An Arsonist, which, if you pay attention, is a song about astronauts – but the tone of the song is sincere and beautiful, and I love Suzanne’s voice for this one.
I’m always a fan of Coulton’s more sobering tracks, so Today With Your Wife quickly became a favorite. A song dealing with loss and the bittersweet reminiscing that follows, this one warranted repeating a couple of times before I moved on to the next track.
Finally, the track that stands out from the rest of the album most: Nobody Loves You Like Me. The song is completely acapella and sang in a beautiful harmony in stark contrast to the rest of the album, and lyrically is very strong as well, the pain and sincerity coming through very clearly, raw through the unaccompanied voice.
To summarize: Artificial Heart is not what I expected, but it’s a great album nonetheless, and a must-have for any Jonathan Coulton fan. I also think that this may be the best introductory album for newer listeners who are interested in him as a complete artist, and not just as the novel “geeky music guy.” You can find it on his website, but if you order before Thursday you can still get in on his very cool package deals for the album.