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.