New Albums From Jonathan Coulton and They Might Be Giants
Jonathan Coulton has become one of the stars of geek-rock, thanks mainly to his empathetic songs about the softer side of monsters and mad scientists. With his easygoing charisma and strong online presence, he’s the cool big brother to a legion of (well-deserved) fans. However, his strength is in the power of singles, amplified by downloads and social media links. In album format, he seems a lot less impressive. Artificial Heart demonstrates this.
The new hits are there: Coulton zeroes in on geek culture obsessions both trendy (“The Stache”) and standard (“Nemeses”). The latter is the closest to his “classic” standards, playing up the needy motivations behind a storybook arch-nemesis. But most of the songs are quiet, introspective, and even occasionally realistic. Coulton’s second fascination has been with the banality of modern existence, and he hits those beats on “Alone At Home” and “Good Morning Tucson”.
These songs will all work great in concert, but seem less impressive mixed into an album. Tracks like “Fraud” and “Today With Your Wife” are a little too slow and focus on emotions that never seem as genuine as they do in Coulton’s more fantastic songs. That is the issue in a nutshell: Coulton is intelligent and clever person capable of making songs that rise above their gimmicky surface, but he frequently attempts more “serious” work that never reaches the same heights. He’s a skilled performer, but it’s the creative spark that separates him from your friend’s cousin who plays at coffee shops. That spark appears here, but too inconsistently and too subtly to make a great album.
They Might Be Giants, the longstanding rulers of geek-rock, also have a new album. Join Us is in many ways a fairly comfortable, standard TMBG release, but remains consistently good. It’s true that the band has kept themselves from becoming stale by mainly releasing children’s music these days – this is their first adult album since 2007 – but the important thing is that they are not stale even after all these years. These songs are clever and interesting.
The band has a wide range, from folksy to slinky to rocking to the ballads and the just plain weird evolution of 1990’s alternative. These are tied together by the distinctively nasal vocals and a feeling that we’re in the studio watching music geeks play around. That impression excuses them from questions of musical quality.
The lyrics are the same as ever, ranging from the cleverly phrased to the inscrutable. They run every idea through a process that ensures even straightforward topics require attention from the listener: Circumlocution, complex sentence structures, and an advanced (but natural) vocabulary make their lyrics annoying for some people but thrilling for others. Contrary to Coulton’s work, it gives even their mundane songs a sort of uniqueness. “Judy Is Your Viet Nam” and “You Probably Get That A Lot” may cover completely standard relationship topics, but they’ve never been worded this way before.
They namedrop everything from Banksy to Sleestaks, and talk about Swamp Thing only one verse after evolution. Sometimes it helps to understand the references, but often those are only the starting points for the strange topics: “The Lady And The Tiger”, for example, has very little to do with the classic story (unless I’ve forgotten the talking animals and laser vision).
As always, the band undercuts their potentially snobby image with self-deprecation and macabre humor. “Can’t Keep Johnny Down” features an obviously crazy protagonist who rails against “all the dicks in this dick town”, but names that character after the two bandleaders. “When Will You Die” is an upbeat celebration about an enemy’s eventual demise. And while “2082” may be an indecipherable time-travel story, it’s climax is a surprisingly disturbing murder.
They Might Be Giants has matured without changing significantly. If people find them repetitive by now, the best defense is to show that their quality standards are as high as ever. It is probably best for the band to maintain this pace of four or five years between adult releases. This keeps the albums feeling like special events, and gives them time to find new twists to their established style.