In the years since his stint in Soul Coughing, Mike Doughty has proven himself a fantastically clever, witty, and subtly poignant songwriter. But listening to Golden Delicious, his third proper solo full-length, you’d hardly know it. Maybe it’s the pressure to release a hit single in accordance with his pop-friendly label head Dave Matthews, but Doughty plays it safe on nearly all of the eleven tracks here — and worse, he plays it soft.
What set Doughty apart on 2005’s Haughty Melodic and, even more so, on 2004’s Skittish/Rockity Roll, his double album compiling, respectively, the 1996 and 2003 releases, was the intelligence behind his otherwise simple, acoustic-based songs. When he threw out a word like “decathecting” on Melodic’s “Looking at the World from the Bottom of a Well,” it wasn’t arrogant; it fit with the aesthetic — careful and tight pop songs with an academic bite — which he had already been mining for years. To hear him turn a phrase like “You snooze you lose/ Well, I have snost and lost” (from “I Hear the Bells”) was to hear the confines of the singer-songwriter genre stretch.
But nowhere on Golden Delicious does Doughty take any risks. At its best — “Fort Hood,” “I Got the Drop on You” — Doughty takes a cue from his own back catalog and delivers simple but ultimately cathartic lyrics with little accompaniment. The bridge of “Fort Hood” may include the only shotout to Young Jeezy outside of a Young Jeezy song, yet it, and the “Let the sun shine in” chorus, avoids the hole a lesser artist might drag them into. On these songs, Doughty is not trying to impress anyone but himself.
And then there’s the rest of the album, which all falls under the sunny mid-tempo umbrella that makes it perfect for broadcast on the American Eagle PA. If this same pop-couched vitriol of Skittish’s “40 Grand in the Hole” is on display on “I Got the Drop on You,” it’s completely absent from songs like “Like a Luminous Girl,” “I Wrote a Song About Your Car,” and “Nectarine (Part One).” In these outward-looking, radio-ready jams, Doughty is neutered.
Lyrically, much of Golden Delicious seems almost unfinished. Where in the past he’d allow a song to build or let his lyrics stand alone above a sparse background, Delicious plays more like an O.A.R. record: You can tap your foot to it, you can play it at a frat party, but the intelligence is gone.
Going the pop route is not the problem. Even with the significantly stranger Soul Coughing, Doughty’s never been inaccessible. But this new crop of songs are so rounded that the rough edges and lyrical trickery that he’s so deft with seem to have vanished. To extend the title’s metaphor, Golden Delicious has the taste, but none of the bite.