Music Review: Jonathan Coulton, Live at Union Hall

Much is being made of Jonathan Coulton‘s recent, Internet-fueled popularity, but as several fans pointed out in the comments to his most recent blog post (entitled “How I Did It”), it’s easy to lose sight of the essential fact that Coulton’s music is wonderful. Sure, he’s used the Internet in innovative ways, and sure, he had a measure of good luck in getting the necessary exposure that enabled him to find his audience. But without an unusual gift, none of that would matter.

At last night’s jam-packed concert at Union Hall in Brooklyn, Coulton demonstrated performing chops to match his songwriting talent. Strong vocals and nifty guitar work acted merely in the service of the rooted connection he made to the audience with his songs. It’s that connection which can elevate a concert to the realm of the transcendently entertaining. Alone with an acoustic guitar, Coulton embodied the primeval bond between entertainer and audience. That’s not a niche – that’s basic entertainment. It doesn’t matter if every last one of his fans discovered him on the Internet – they’re coming to see him live. Plus ça change…

“I Crush Everything,” a slightly surreal song about a lonely giant squid, exemplified the imagination that makes Coulton special. He can create a truly touching and beautiful song from the point of view of a creature that is alien and nearly mythic to us. “I lie below, you float above/In the pretty white ships that I’ve been dreaming of/And I’d like to swim beside you/Getting dizzy in your wake…” The chorus brilliantly (musically and lyrically) evokes the incompleteness of the sensitive squid’s life.

“I’m Your Moon” is another song about fundamental human feelings expressed through things that don’t have them – in this case Pluto and its moon, Charon. In the universe of music, it’s just a short step from a metaphor about birds and bees to a love song sung by one celestial body to another. In taking that step Coulton adds his imaginative spin to age-old topics, while remaining comfortably accessible to music lovers.

As one fan noted in a blog comment, “You come for the funny, you stay for the music.” The song “The Future Soon” is certainly of the funny, as are many of Coulton’s most popular tunes, but unlike a typical novelty song, it’s sad and deep as well as humorous. We can’t help but sympathize with the geeky teenager dreaming of “perfecting my warrior robot race”: “Cause it’s gonna be the future soon/And I won’t always be this way/When the things that make me weak and strange get engineered away.”

Something similar, of course, is what gives his biggest hit, “Code Monkey,” its force – humor and silliness in the service of real feeling. Or is it the other way around? It doesn’t really matter. While there were plenty of code monkeys in the audience last night, they aren’t much different from the rest of the world now. In fact, we’re all geeks now, tied to our silicon, hip to the digits. Jonathan Coulton is a creature of us. Niche indeed.

Cross-posted at Blogcritics.