Jonathan Coulton
Where Tradition Meets Tomorrow



by Steerpike USER (24 Reviews)
December 18th, 2009 | 4 replies

Release Date: 2004 | Tracklist

Review Summary: Geek rock that's not just for geeks.

If I'm going to do this review, first I need to address the elephant in the room. Jonathan Coulton has been dubbed the Godfather of Geek Rock, and generally speaking catering to the nerd demographic has a stigma attached to it. The reason being that nerds are predictable and often so happy to have a bone thrown their way that they'll buy anything. No-talent hacks like Tim Buckley (the motherfucker responsible for Control+Alt+Delete) have made a killing selling unfunny garbage to a demographic with a strangely high disposable income and no apparent filters for good taste and quality control.

Point of fact, most geek humor seems to revolve around mentioning ninjas, monkeys, or something to that effect, and trusting the reference to carry the joke. A bit like Meet the Spartans and Disaster Movie at that. Or the humor revolves around character-based comedy in which said characters are less quirky and idiosyncratic, and more sociopathic and functionally retarded. So you can understand why some people would be skeptical approaching Jonathan Coulton's music with the knowledge that he is himself a geek and writes geek songs.

The bad news is that Jonathan is not going to revolutionize the world of nerd comedy because the internet is a publisherless medium, and thus exercising quality control over it is like trying to melt a glacier with a Zippo. The good news is that Jonathan is a genuinely talented musician and songwriter who does use nerd topics like zombies, but is able to give them a fresh enough spin to actually make it funny. He always makes sure that the music itself is fun and catchy, while his lyrics rely on understated wit and charm. Anyone who has heard the song Still Alive, which he wrote for the game Portal (and statistically speaking there's a 95% chance you have) should be at least slightly aware of this.

Where Tradition Meets Tomorrow is an EP of Coulton's most recent works and contains five songs, all of which are great fun. The moods deftly shift from a love song from a mad scientist to his captive bride-to-be (Skullcrusher Mountain), a sad tune about a giant squid who is lonely (I Crush Everything), and a rocker about math (Mandelbrot Set).

The Future Soon and Skullcrusher Mountain both use Jonathan's favorite songwriting topic: a mad scientist who is sad. They're basically fucked up love songs, giving a nice subversive undertone to the cliche of singing about unrequited love. The former is an up-beat number about a scientist creating a robot army, asserting, "I won't always be this way, when the things that make me weak and strange get engineered away."

The best way I can describe Skullcrusher Mountain is to say it's something The Beatles might have written if they lived in a volcano and wanted to take over the world. Like The Future Soon it has an infectious sing-along chorus that begs to be played live.

Shifting musical gears slightly is I Crush Everything. Instead of a mad scientist who is sad, it's a giant squid. He laments that he can't have any friends because he destroys everything he gets close to. It's a much more sedate affair than the previous numbers, but the arpeggiated pre-chorus and chorus are a hallmark of Jonathan's songwriting and here show him at his finest in stirring emotions.

Betty and Me is more energetic than the other songs and switches gears to a very naive and foolish narrator unaware of the fact that his wife is cheating on him. I point this out because it's a good example of how Coulton can avoid the traps of nerd humor of being either "SOOO WACKY!!!" or "TOTALLY RANDOM!!1!" that cause most people, myself included, to go into a slow burn of vitriolic loathing.

My personal favorite of the EP is Mandelbrot Set, which is essentially a fan song to a fractal equation. I shit you not. It's insanely catchy and works largely on Jonathan's ability to keep a straight face no matter how outlandish the lyrics.

Which brings me to another virtue of Jonathan as a comedian. Have you ever met one of those obnoxious mongoloids who laughs at all of his own jokes or needlessly deconstructs every punchline just because you didn't laugh as much as he hoped you would? Of course you have. A better question would be, how hard do you hit them?

Jonathan's lyrics are ridiculous, naturally, but he restrains himself from the urge to go completely over-the-top with them. Since most of his songs are in first-person perspective, he delivers them with no hint of self-aware irony or smugness. Since he's singing the part of a character, he has to remember that living in a volcano would not be unusual to a mad scientist who considered it a good idea in the first place.

When attempting to blend music with comedy, you have to remember that really good songwriting can save mediocre music. But no amount of virtuous compositions can save bad writing. Jonathan Coulton's triumph that earns him the title of Godfather of Geek Rock is that he never sacrifices one for the other. What you get on this EP are some ridiculously catchy, even moving songs, each one musically different from the last and experimenting with different ideas and techniques, and some truly fucking funny lyrics.

So whether or not you're a nerd, give this man your money so he can keep making music. The modern internet is clogged with shit like Megatokyo and Brokencyde, so I'd say it's about time we all started supporting real talent.

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user ratings (18)

Comments:Add a Comment 
December 18th 2009


Album Rating: 4.5

This has been on heavy rotation on my iTunes since I saw Jonathan live with Paul and Storm the other week.

Staff Reviewer
December 19th 2009


this was a triumph...

April 27th 2010


skullcrusher mountain owns on every possible level.

October 21st 2010


Album Rating: 3.5

My favorite song is actually "the Future Soon" It has a good relaxing tone while being witty like Jonathan Coulton is. Just a question though. Where is the Thing a weeks and his other album smoking monkey

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