In 2004, Jonathan Coulton was a techno-utopian. He had a job coding software, but for fun, he’d written some quirky pop songs—and in a bit of skipping-stone serendipity, he got invited to play them at a tech conference. When he sang the rhapsodic bridge of “Mandelbrot Set”—a gorgeously articulated math equation—the audience jumped to their feet, clapping and screaming. Afterwards, Coulton watched a speech by Lawrence Lessig, in which the Harvard Law Professor described the Creative Commons: shared art, uploaded online, liberated from traditional copyright. When Coulton walked out into the cold Maine sunshine, he remembers, “It was like my head was on fire. I was like, holy shit, something is happening!” Suddenly, anyone could publish music. Between HTML, MP3s, and Paypal, you could build your own label. Podcasts were radio shows. The internet had just begun to blink fully awake, but already it was a tangle of creativity, turning strangers into a community.
Growing up in rural Connecticut, the son of a lawyer and a schoolteacher, Coulton had always been a song geek. He played guitar and recorded originals on a cassette 4-track. He was a regular at midnight-movie shows of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” (over his bed, he draped a silky fan-tapestry, printed with bricks). And he dug the more humane, story-based breeds of pop: The Beatles, Billy Joel, Steely Dan, Crowded House. At Yale, he sang with The Whiffenpoofs. But once he’d graduated, he found that making music was a grind: in 1990s New York, it was all about pasting flyers and begging friends to pay for two shitty cocktails. Instead, Coulton got a dot-com gig, building databases. Now, he realized, there was a whole new way to reach an audience. At 34, married, with a newborn daughter, Coulton quit his day job. In 2005, he launched the Thing-A-Week Project, sparking a burst of productivity that turned him into a cult figure—online-famous, Version 1.0. Along the way, he won a reputation as “the internet music-business guy,” an artist who communicated directly with his audience, having circumvented the kludgy, crumbling music industry.
This was the era when, like many of his most deranged super-fans, I first discovered Coulton’s music. His songs blew my tiny mind: they were equally funny and profound, full of wordplay that kept tilting, fast, into deeper emotion. He had an abiding love of character, a lyrical gift that reminded me of They Might Be Giants and Paul Simon, Elvis Costello and Aimee Mann. A lot of those songs were also about zombies and giant squids, a nerdy streak that might, in less-skilled hands, have felt gimmicky. But Coulton’s appeal wasn’t about comic book references (I’d barely read any), but a rare, intimate insight into a newly mediated landscape. He had a few specialities, among them a raft of songs about nice-guy pathologies, like “The Future Soon,” about a resentful teen nerd, and “Skullcrusher Mountain,” from a supervillain’s POV. But when Coulton told a story about Bigfoot, it was about a brutally hot one-night stand. When he sang about a noisy shop vac, it was really about loneliness and marriage. If he had a mission, it was to treat geek culture not as something exotic or silly, but home-like, familiar: it was what we were all soaking in.
A decade passed. The world changed—and the internet with it. “I read Omni Magazine. I read Wired Magazine. I knew the internet was going to save us, because it was going to connect us and free us,” says Coulton. “It didn’t happen that way.” Coulton’s latest album, Solid State (2017), is, like so many breakthrough albums, the product of a raging personal crisis—one that is equally about making music and living online, getting older, and worrying about the apocalypse. A concept album about digital dystopia, it’s Coulton’s warped meditation on the ugly ways the internet has morphed since 2004. At the same time, it’s a musical homage to his earliest Pink Floyd fanhood, a rock-opera about artificial intelligence. It’s a worried album by a man hunting for a way to stay hopeful.
Coulton’s last album, Artificial Heart, from 2011, was itself a jump away from explicit storytelling, a ferocious, elliptical rock-and-roll album made in collaboration with John Flansburgh of “They Might Be Giants.” When that was done, Coulton felt like he’d never write a song again. As a hard reboot, he took an electronic music course in lower Manhattan, one that was dominated by 24-year-olds hammering together surreal tracks of dance music. Their waves of sonic mush and swooping arpeggios suggested a new path in. Coulton began experimenting with his sound, and those knob-tweaking games evolved, gradually, into a coded memoir about his own ambivalence about the future, soon.
The title track, “Solid State,” which brackets the album, is, Coulton jokes over cocktails in Brooklyn, “a hopeful look at how the internet sucks.” On the one hand, Coulton says, the “solid state” is what our culture used to be, pre-web: unmoving, stable, but also essentially non-communicative. The digital age changed us, fast: ”Now we can hear each other and it’s terrible.” But the metaphor is also about the relationship between old-fashioned vacuum tubes—with their organic distortion, so hard to control—and modern solid-state electronics, which gave us both digital amps and the blunt force of mini-computers. Digital models are more efficient and powerful, but they are also icier, more brittle. “If the internet is this cold digital structure, we are the distortion that gives it warmth.” Or as the song itself puts it, “It’s all messed up, it’s better that way.”
In a linked graphic novel written by Matt Fraction and drawn by Albert Monteys, the songs of Solid State narrate a trippy epic, a psychedelic, futuristic narrative about two men whose fates are linked over time (and who are both, as it happens, named Bob) and the God-like artificial intelligence that both protects and abandons them. It’s a Neal Stephenson/Ray Kurzweil/Kevin Kelly-inflected fable that is located at the end of the world, much of it deep inside a city that has been sedated by what Coulton calls “nicey-nice fascism”—locked-in, medicated, machine-run—and which is ringed by a raw, ruined apocalyptic landscape. The graphic novel is a story about how we got there from here.
Yet the songs work individually, too. “All This Time” is a rebel song from deep inside a zoned-out, medicated mindset: “Reds for focus blues to not get upset/Wasters and complainers get what they get/All eyes watching, no one’s noticed me yet?” “Brave,” a dark extension of those early nice-guy songs, is the voice of a shit-posting troll straight out of 8Chan: “When I torch the place/And cover up my face/That will make me brave.” “Square Things,” constructed from a whole-tone scale, evokes the spinning cubes of Windows-style software, with double-edged lines like “Everyone choose a side.” “Ball and Chain” is a marriage song. So is “Tattoo,” which Coulton describes as “a metaphor for a permanent choice, a thing that gets made and gradually degrades—and about finding beauty in that change.” With its eerie Beatles-meets-lullaby vibe, “Ordinary Man” sneaks up on an unsettling dystopian taunt: “You say no one tells you the ending/But it ends this way.” The biting “Don’t Feed The Trolls” is about the double-bind of the outrage economy: “Dance like they’re watching you/Because they are watching you.” The Oasis-tinged “Sunshine” is the upbeat death anthem of an apocalyptic survivor; and there are some erotic-trance songs in the mix, too, experimental voices from deep inside the POV of a loving, ever-evolving God-like artificial-intelligence, a strange creature who has moved past humanity but still craves intimacy with it (“I Want You All to Myself”).
Musically, these songs have a pared-down anthemic force very different from the chord-heavy guitar-pop that made Coulton famous. Coulton created them while working, in close collaboration with his producer Christian Cassan, from his home in Gowanus, Brooklyn, often composing “in the box.” He tweaked knobs for inspiration, building waves of drone and jangle and hum that feel a bit like a digital hymn. And yet these are also dialectical songs by design: they’re solid-state anthems that are meant to question — and maybe to mourn — the method of their own production.
As it builds, Solid State flips the script on some of Coulton’s oldest obsessions: rather than dwell on our responses to the internet, these songs also wonder what the internet thinks (and feels) about us. They’re stories about a poisoned utopia, in which the endless choices might all seem bad: staying connected and cutting yourself off; being known and being anonymous; narcotized safety and feel-everything risk. As the reprise of “Solid State” suggests, this is an album about a life that’s beautiful precisely because the end isn’t so hard to imagine, about a shadow that can’t be separated from the cold sunshine that he walked into back in 2004: “A pretty sweet ride, as long as you can hold on/Here right now. And gone when it’s gone.”