Mike Doughty is one of the greatest summertime singer/songwriters, which makes his latest release seem a tad inappropriate. If only we’d had this album four months ago, we could enjoyed it with a beach bonfire. Even though Sad Man Happy Man comes late for summer bacchanalia, it has a gritty realness to it, which enables an autumn audience to feel comfortable around the warm glow of Doughty’s guitar.
If you’re unfamiliar with Doughty, he is the former pipes behind ’90s outfit Soul Coughing. In his solo music, Doughty’s acoustic guitar and soulful lyrics are given center stage, to great effect, eclipsing the artistry he achieved with a band. His latest release, following 2008’s Golden Delicious, is another welcome entry to his canon of playful acoustic tunes.
Sad Man Happy Man opens with its best example of Doughty’s songwriting in “Nectarine (part two)”, a ballad to a mysterious woman that finishes a story started on Golden Delicious. “Oh Nectarine, come love me right again,” he pleads over a simple guitar rhythm that runs darker than the original track. The song is sexy and suggestive without being too specific:
On that night I saw your picture
traced in stars
I saw the meteors through the branches …
Lose the dress and wear the boots instead
Doughty manages to construct an intimate portrait of a woman and the complexities of a relationship, without giving us any significant identifying details. Yet, the picture created and the song itself effortlessly seduce the listener.
Doughty’s style is further exemplified in the quirky punctuated “(I Keep On) Rising Up” and “(You Should Be) Doubly (Gratified)”. “Lorna Zauberberg” opens with the charming image of a woman sleeping against the window of Doughty’s car, as he wonders what she’s dreaming. The problem is, the track of garbled voices sometimes runs over the guitar part and quickly grows annoying.
Despite the temporary drawback, experimentation, which is something Doughty has never shied away from, is evident. “Sweet Lord in Heaven” deals explicitly with the presence of religion in music, and “More Bacon Than the Pan Can Handle” is played live with a vocoder device. On Sad Man Happy Man, the experiment continues with “(He’s Got the) Whole World (in His Hands)”, and it’s nice to see a musician so comfortable with talking about his beliefs. He doesn’t allow any insecurities to silence him.
On the other hand, “How to Fuck a Republican” is daring, but Doughty’s usual sexiness subtly, but quickly turns pornographic with a few unfortunate lyrics. This track seems to be the only one that suffers from pornographic lyrics. Back on track with Doughty’s creative thinking is the darkly seductive “(When I) Box the Days (Up).” The tone is accentuated by a string section that contrasts well with Doughty’s usual guitar stylings.
Other highlights include “Pleasure on Credit”, with a delightfully repetitive chorus of the style that Doughty is so good at writing; it’s a rhythm that worms its way into your head through pure ingenuity, rather than obnoxiousness. “Lord Lord Help Me Just to Rock Rock On” is quick-paced and grounded by some well-placed percussion. “Year of the Dog” has some lovely imagery, and just in case Doughty’s grown too serious for you by now, a playful take on morals titled “Casper the Friendly Ghost” closes out the album.
Doughty is a free spirit, a talented musician, and a skilled lyricist. Experimentation carries its risks, but Doughty seems comfortable with them, and his music largely benefits from this. Sad Man Happy Man is by turns light and uplifting, sexy and dark. Old fans won’t want to miss it and those unfamiliar with Doughty will benefit from giving it a try. Though it will be a while until you can play this record over bonfires and beers, give it a listen with whiskey and a fireplace to speed winter along.