In 2007, gamers around the world let out a collective sigh of relief as the credits finally rolled on Valve’s enigmatic puzzler Portal, the breakaway Orange Box hit and arguable champion of “best game this side of Half Life 3.” For all their efforts, defying physics and ego-maniacal robots alike, triumphant gamers were left with a promise of cake and a gentle-but-upbeat almost-lullaby of a parting gift: “Still Alive,” the sing-songy musical taunt from GLaDOS, the antagonistic artificial intelligence. But for Brooklyn singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton, the man behind the catchy lyrics and inside jokes, it was simply the next piece of the puzzle.
“This was a triumph,” the malevolent GLaDOS begins as the credits roll, “I’m making a note here: huge success.” Though meant for the completion of hours’ worth of grueling testing and teleportation, the words rang truer for Coulton’s career.
Two years prior, Coulton undertook the challenge of his lifetime, a grueling 52-week affair entitled Thing A Week, aiming to produce a fresh song each week for an entire year. The process netted such Coulton-classics as the computer programmer’s tale of labor and love, “Code Monkey,” and a startlingly catchy acoustic-folk cover of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s peerless posterior pièce de résistance “Baby Got Back.”
“I finished Thing A Week at the end of 2006,” Coulton says. “I toured for a while in 2007, and then I had a song in the greatest videogame of all time. You couldn’t plan it better if you tried.”
Overnight, his fanbase exploded. But as far as making music was concerned, Coulton was, well, in his words, “lazy.” The Thing A Week process had been exhausting, so the last thing Coulton wanted was another deadline. He spent time touring, working on his live show, but without the challenge of Thing A Week or anyone to answer to, no more than a slow trickle of new material appeared.
That all changed in the spring of 2010 when, after a string of tour dates opening for They Might Be Giants, TMBG’s John Flansburgh pulled Coulton aside. “I think you should make a record,” Flansburgh said to him, “and I would love make it with you.”
“I wet my pants a little bit, because it was exciting and thrilling but also kind of terrifying,” Coulton says, but he knew it was something he couldn’t turn down. “It sounded like such a fantastic adventure.”
Recording that new album, Artificial Heart, was a step into the new in a number of ways. Not only was it Coulton’s first time working with a producer or in a studio other than his home, but it was his first time writing and recording with a full band. In the past, anything beyond Coulton’s guitar felt more like an afterthought, simply adding additional layers to a completed acoustic song. Now the band fits together as if they were cut from the same board.
“We very much tried to let the songs bloom into whatever they wanted to be in the studio,” Coulton says. The songs still stem from guitar and vocal demos, but giving them to someone else meant they got the fresh-eyed treatment, a process they were better for in the end.
Long-time Coulton fans will still find the quirky lyrics and geeky subject matter they have come to know and love, such as a day in the life of a Tuscon, Ariz., morning-show host or an upbeat ditty in which Rick Springfield sings about himself in French. However, the real magic comes when Coulton runs out of ideas. Some of the best songs to come out of his year-long 2006 experiment were the result of tapping into the creative depths found only when all the easy songs had been written. “Every week was this terrifying blank slate,” Coulton says. “And that led to the best songwriting of that entire year. When I was in that place, when I had finally used up all of my ideas, that’s when it got good. I had the same experience with this record, my favorite stuff is what I wrote at the end when I was sad and angry and tired of writing.”
Born from that place are songs such as “Glasses,” which rocks harder than its introspective lyrics about the complications of marriage and family life would suggest, or “Fraud,” a hauntingly dark story of some nameless, faceless malevolent force, mysterious even to Coulton himself. “I’m still not entirely sure what I was writing about,” he says. “It feels like something that came from another place.”
Another favorite, “Today With Your Wife,” tells an equally ambiguous story. As Coulton explains, the song began as a joke about spending an innocuous day with a friend’s wife, but quickly took a left turn into the saddest, most painful story you can think of. The haunting chorus “You should have been there” demands an explanation that will never come. What has happened here? Divorce? An affair? A death? Or nothing at all? It’s an intimate story with no context, like reading a love letter meant for another’s eyes.
But for all that mystery and misery, there’s still something left for the gamers drawn in by Coulton’s Portal-credits contributions. Both songs make album appearances; the original “Still Alive,” rerecorded with vocals by Tegan and Sara’s Sara Quin sits next to a rendition of Portal 2’s “Want You Gone” with Coulton’s vocals supplanting those of Ellen McLain’s GLaDOS. The songs, both new versions of well-known tracks, fit the album perfectly. The final pieces of the puzzle, making the image complete.