Bigger production emphasizes Coulton's strengths
I've been waiting for Artificial Heart with mixed feelings. The pre-release drop of Nemeses this summer maintained Jonathan Coulton's voice, but the full band sound was a big change. Until now, Coulton has largely been a solo acoustic performer. The larger arrangements on Artificial Heart bring out Coulton's strong pop underpinnings while keeping his skewed perspectives.
Many of the songs evoke a classic, old school power pop reminiscent of Joe Jackson or Marshall Crenshaw. The opening track, Sticking It To Myself, sets that tone. It's clever and fits for an artist making his break for a larger audience. Coulton acknowledges the changes with a nod and self deprecating wink in this power pop gem: "I'm the man now, and I'm sticking it to myself." It borders on my favorite "snotty boys with guitars" sound -- a tight arrangement featuring sneering vocals, horns, and perfect electric guitar fills.
Artificial Heart is full of these amusing moments. Another favorite is Je Suis Rick Springfield, which portrays a flustered Rick Springfield stuck in France among people who have no idea who he is. It's funny if you understand French, but the JoCo Wiki offers a translation for everyone to enjoy.
Coulton's poignant side also comes through on several songs. Artificial Heart sets up a metaphor (and excuse) for emotional disconnection, while Today With Your Wife sets up an ambiguous story of loss. This is especially effective with Coulton's soulful delivery and a solid piano arrangement. It feels like a Ben Folds track as it layers a casual surface with a deeper subtext. "You should have been there" - it could be about a widow, a neglected woman's affair, or maybe it's just an admonition to the subject of Artificial Heart.
Coulton has teamed up with some great artists on Artificial Heart. John Flansburgh (They Might Be Giants) produced the album and brought in some impressive guest singers. Suzanne Vega's vocal on Now I Am An Arsonist is achingly beautiful. Paired with a wistful guitar, it could have come out of Richard and Linda Thompson's back catalog.
Sara Quin (Tegan and Sara) covers Ellen McLain's vocal on Still Alive, Coulton's award winning closer to the game Portal. The theremin intro is an interesting addition, but it stays largely true to the feel of the earlier recording. The album also includes Want You Gone, Coulton's song from Portal 2.
Coulton has shared his fears about pushing his boundaries on Artificial Heart. And it's true that some classic JoCo fans may be disappointed at the fuller band sound, the guest vocals, or some sense that Coulton is selling out. But the album is a natural outgrowth of Jonathan Coulton's work. His songs blend humor and odd perspectives with real feelings and humanity. Artificial Heart's fancier production and extras don't mask or change that.