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Jonathan Coulton - Solid State

(Vinyl 2LP)

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Item: LDC04024

Jonathan Coulton's latest album, Solid State, 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.

Solid State narrates 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.

Yet the songs work individually, too. "All This Time" is a rebel song from deep inside a zoned-out, medicated mindset. "Brave," a dark extension of those early nice-guy songs, is the voice of a shit-posting troll straight out of 8Chan. "Square Things," constructed from a whole-tone scale, evokes the spinning cubes of Windows-style software, with double-edged lines. "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. The biting "Don't Feed The Trolls" is about the double-bind of the outrage economy. 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. 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.

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  1. Wake Up
  2. All This Time
  3. Solid State
  4. Brave
  5. Square Things
  6. Pictures Of Cats
  7. Ordinary Man
  8. Robots.txt
  9. Don't Feed The Trolls
  10. Your Tattoo
  11. Ball And Chain
  12. Sunshine
  13. Solid State (Reprise)
  14. Pulled Down The Stars
  15. All To Myself (Part 1)
  16. All To Myself (Part 2)
  17. There You Are

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