It seems safe to say that Jonathan Coulton is currently a nerd icon. Coulton has sung about zombies, worked on songs for the Portal series, toured with They Might Be Giants and performed on stage for Mystery Science Theater 3000 live events. Coulton’s newest album Artificial Heart combines this nerdy sensibility with a melancholy nature that is mostly hit-or-miss.
Throughout Artificial Heart, it seems like Coulton is heavily influenced by They Might Be Giants, which makes sense since John Flansburgh produced the album. Songs like the title track feel like a more instantly palatable TMBG song. The record has a weird balance of loneliness and quirkiness that makes the album as a whole feel a bit off. It’s weird to hear a song like “Today With Your Wife” about a guy who hangs out with a friend’s wife when her husband can’t, to be soon followed by “Je Suis Rick Springfield,” a song almost entirely in French about, I can only assume, Rick Springfield.
Coulton works best when he has someone to bounce ideas off, as is the case with “Nemeses” which features John Roderick of The Long Winters and “Now I Am An Arsonist” with Suzanne Vega. “Nemeses” is especially fun as it sounds influenced by late-’90s, early-’00s Fountains of Wayne-style pop rock.
Artificial Heart’s two greatest songs also seem the most out of place on the album. “Still Alive,” which has Sara Quin of Tegan & Sara making a guest appearance, and “Want You Gone” are both fun songs if the listener is familiar with the Portal video game series they are taken from. However, it is hard to imagine anyone not familiar with said series will be able to overcome references to Aperture Science, Black Mesa and cake to enjoy the songs by themselves.
Artificial Heart is an enjoyable, albeit off-kilter album that is probably better as individual songs rather than as a complete piece.