Review: Mike Doughty’s “Sad Man Happy Man”

A mere nineteen months after releasing his last album, "Golden Delicious," Mike Doughty is back again with another eclectic collection. Cutting to the chase, “Sad Man Happy Man” sums up every one of Doughty’s best skills and condenses them into one thirteen-track, thirty-three minute collection. This may very well be his strongest work as a solo artist, not only because the songs are appealing, but every aspect of his work through the years is represented. Yes, at its core the album‘s closest relative is his stripped down solo debut, “Skittish,” but that’s because most of the songs here are delivered with minimal arrangements and emphasis on Doughty and his acoustic guitar. The songs on “Skittish” often dealt with loss and the overall tone was rather somber. In comparison, “Sad Man Happy Man” is downright optimistic. It’s evident that this was written in a happier place. Maybe this is intended. Maybe this is meant to be a sequel to “Skittish.” Both records are essential parts of the Doughty canon.

Long term Doughty fans should note that a few of these songs contain the wacky, spoken-word beat-poetry side he hasn’t truly exhibited (quite to this extent) since his days fronting Soul Coughing. A few bits of sonic experimentation recall his former band, as well. This is a mature Mike Doughty. All of these aspects are present yet informed by the polished troubadour offerings of his last two records. Thus, the combining of all these facets of Doughty makes this record a complex and compelling stew.

The record begins with “Nectarine (Part Two),” the love-struck, upbeat sequel to the darker, jazzier first part found on “Golden Delicious.” The lyrics are conflicted as if about someone who wronged him who he wants to “love (him) right again!” As he so eloquently puts it, “Sweetness swept through all my senses.” This line really can be seen as the track’s thesis statement.

With its bouncy beat and slight electro touches, “(I Keep On) Rising Up” sounds like it could’ve been on his “Rockity Roll” E.P. It should also please fans of Soul Coughing’s hit, “Circles.” Like many of the tracks on here, the arrangement of this track benefits from some edgy, screeching string work.

In a different life, one can imagine “(You Should Be) Doubly (Gratified)” on the Soul Coughing album “El Oso.” There’s an almost grungy, knowing defiance in Doughty’s delivery. If you are familiar with that record, this song s somehow simultaneously reminiscent of both the second half of “Houston” and “$300.”

“Lorna Zauberberg” is another warm acoustic guitar exercise. The use of chopped up and mangled vocal samples during the instrumental section brings to mind the answering machine on “Janine.” The sound experimentation is a nice element to hear back in Doughty’s work. It separates him from the pack of singer-songwriters in the best way possible. Even at his most commercial-sounding, Doughty has always added enough twists and turns to keep his audience enthralled. In this context, despite being merely a man playing an acoustic guitar, this is worlds away from coffee-house blandness, yet not so strange and “artsy” that it smacks of pretentiousness. In this respect, Doughty has found the perfect balance. He should still get the hipsters in his fan-base but he should also appeal to the more open-minded older listeners brought up on the acoustic music of the past.

Doughty’s apparent love of parenthesizing his song titles continues humorously with”(I Want To) Burn You (Down)” The track is a concise two-minute reflection in which he says, “Hey soothsayer, listen up / I don’t know who I am.” Even when expressing feelings of self doubt, one thing’s clear. Mike Doughty is more comfortable than ever in his skin as a songwriter. This track is on par with the haunting closer of “Skittish,” “Rising Sign.” Perhaps this is over-thinking it, but the two share a lyrical theme of fire and fire-causing agents when you consider “Rising Sign”’s refrain, “I swear I’d like to drink the fuel straight from your lighter.” (By the way, it goes without saying that you definitely shouldn’t try that at home!!)

The “deep slacker jazz,” wordplay wizard side of Doughty returns in top form with “Pleasure On Credit.” This has some of funniest most random couplets to date including “Blast faster, plaster postmaster. / Go Bleecker, Union, Astor.” Repeating the phrase “Chase the mermaid, / Chase, chase the mermaid” brings forth some rather vivid imagery as well.

Next up is “Lord Lord Help Me Just To Rock Rock On.” In his solo career, Doughty has often put religious references in his titles. It’s hard to tell what this really means and whether it’s a statement of true religiosity or if it is just there to be contrary. After all, a previous deity shout-out was called “Thank You, Lord, For Sending Me The F Train.” (I’ve ridden the F train and in Brooklyn, it goes local when it should be an express. If it were to magically become an express, which it supposedly eventually will, then there might be some reason to praise some outer force! But, I digress!) This track is driving and one pictures that it would be a good soundtrack to a sporting event. (I somehow always picture people playing basketball for unknown reasons whenever I hear this song!)

The religious references continue with “(He’s Got The) Whole World (In His Hands.)” Thankfully, it is not the campfire hymn. Rather, like “Pleasure On Credit” it is a fantastic spoken-word piece. No, the title doesn’t refer to God; it seems to refer to Doughty’s protagonist. His lyrics can be dense and hard to decipher amidst the clever wordplay, so my reading might be wrong, but I picture the protagonist as a young guy out on the town. The random lyrics might be what he sees. He might have a Messiah-like complex of sorts. Then again, it could be just a cool collection of words. (Either way, think of this as a companion piece to the Soul Coughing classic, “Blue Eyed Devil” about a smiling door-to-door salesman, “slugging down fruit juice. / Extra tall, extra wide.”) On this track, Doughty equals the cleverness of “Pleasure On Credit” when he says lines like, “Goth girls holler in the bright cafes. / I call it corn / You call it maize.”

“(When I) Box The Days (Up)” is another winning acoustic number. Again, the track is aided by what sounds like an unhinged cello.

“Year Of The Dog” finds Doughty in his most troubadour-esque state, but it begins with a strange set of lines. “Time tells butter fat lies. / Sweet, lousy cupcakes of lies.” My sweet-tooth asks why Doughty would equate something so ugly with something so delicious, but my mind appreciates his adventurous use of metaphors. (Haha!) “Diane” is about a quest for a lost love. It’s one of Doughty’s most winning, straight-ahead love songs to date.

Next is a song which is probably going to get some attention merely for its title. “It’s called “How To F___ A Republican.” The title is not uttered at all in the song but there are sexual references. In the song, Doughty picks up a stock-broker business woman, decked out in pearls. The part of the song which stands out the most is when Doughty says, “You may ask, ‘what are girls like?’/ Girls are soft and they smell nice. / Girls like flowers and they just might be nice to you.” Why do these line stand out? Maybe because they are so uncharacteristically basic coming from him. But in this case, they help the song.

The album closes with a winning, appealing cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Casper The Friendly Ghost.” This cover would have gone very well on the “The Late Great Daniel Johnston” tribute album from a few years back because it captures Johnston’s child-like wonderment. Doughty can be a very playful artist, so a quirky song like this is a nice fit.

“Sad Man Happy Man” is stellar. Doughty has never released a bad album. All three Soul Coughing records are winners. His solo career has been strong as well, but here he seems to have a level of confidence not heard before. He’s the most grounded and focused he’s ever been. Soul Coughing were one of the most adventurous bands of the nineties and sadly they didn’t get the credit they deserved. It’s nice to see Doughty is still making great records in his solo career. Hopefully the public will catch on and he’ll finally get the amount of respect he is due. “Sad Man Happy Man” is essential listening for anyone who has ever liked anything Mike Doughty has ever touched. It’s a bold, stripped down record exhibiting the best of the writer at his essence.

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