Sad Man Happy Man is a perfectly fitting title for a Mike Doughty album. Anyone who reads the guy’s blog or follows his career knows how alternately volatile and friendly he can be, and his latest album might be the best representation of that divide since his first solo effort, Skittish. This album is more sparse and intimate than his last release, the shimmering pop effort Golden Delicious, and it’s no coincidence. Doughty has said that he consciously went back to sound that is not as fully produced and fleshed out for Sad Man Happy Man, since different cliques of his fans seem to like different things.
Apparently, some of those fans told Doughty that they liked Golden Delicious more than anything he ever did with Soul Coughing. Those people probably weren’t huge Soul Coughing fans to begin with. While Golden Delicious is Doughty’s finest effort since Soul Coughing disbanded, it hardly seems possible that, if given the choice, someone who genuinely loved Soul Coughing would prefer Doughty’s solo work. Anyway, we now have Sad Man Happy Man, an apparent attempt to sate the other groups of fans – the ones who like their Doughty with less sheen. The whole of the album is performed by Doughty, with just a little of Scrap Livingston’s cello here and there, giving the entire affair a personal, intimate vibe. It’s not on the same fearful, huddled tip as Skittish, but it’s close.
Everything about the album is minimalistic, from the artwork to the songwriting. Rarely does Doughty venture out of his comfort zone, and the collection of tunes will be instantly absorbed into his hummable stash of material. Doughty’s reluctance to innovate isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does beg the question – when will Doughty write a song in a drastically different key and tempo? Songs like “Rising Up” and “You Should Be Doubly Gratified” are almost depressingly predictable if you know the rest of Doughty’s music. In the course of 12 original songs, Doughty manages not to move forward at all, offering pretty much the same formula he’s been using for the last decade. If the word “gangadank” means anything to you, you’re more than halfway to knowing what Sad Man Happy Man sounds like.
Doughty’s lyrics tend to blend the oblique and the heartfelt, and this album boasts plenty of evidence to support that trait. However, the songs are decidedly less memorable than the rest of his works, mostly because we’ve heard it all before. You have to wonder if his fans may eventually lose their patience waiting for him to produce something that uses a different rhythm or chord progression. Even the bonus track “Three Is A Magic Number” is performed over the same decade-old guitar riff, nearly identical to the album’s highly derivative “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands.”
A couple of tunes touch on the “robot band” aesthetic found on the Rockity Roll EP. “Pleasure on Credit,” for instance, is mostly one of Doughty’s trademark poetic lyrical hip-hop aspirations layered over an unremarkable groove consisting of the same familiar guitar line and some thumping drums. Others hearken back to the aforementioned edgy acoustic rock of Skittish, like “I Want To Burn You Down.” The line “I have a troublesome girl, she treats me like a parole officer” would have been right at home on that album.
The album’s best moments come when Doughty branches out a bit. He’s remarkably adept at making fractured tunes ring with romantic western tones. “Nectarine Part 2” utilizes Livingston’s cello and Doughty’s tumbling guitar strums to create a sort of alt-prairie-folk. “Lorna Zauberberg” is the kind of narrative he has always excelled at, a hopeful yet forlorn tale full of vivid atmospheric imagery. “Lord Lord Help me Just To Rock Rock On” is perhaps a bit farther into the dance music realm than he’s ventured on record, “When I Box The Days” is a genuinely tuneful chamber-duo piece, and “Diane” teams with “How to Fuck a Republican” to form the most original 5 minutes on the album.
Have Doughty’s fans seen the zenith of his songwriting, or is Sad Man Happy Man merely a conscious foray into his stripped-down sonic past? This is one of those situations where anything is better than silence, as one hates to think of a world without Doughty’s curious, inimitable voice. But if this overwhelmingly standard album is any indication, he’s going to be preaching to the converted for a long while, and rarely gaining any new followers.
Rating: 6.7 out of 10