The most refreshing aspect of Mike Doughty’s Sad Man Happy Man is what it doesn’t include. There is very little percussion, few backing tracks, no keyboards, only sparse bass and cello lines. The longest song is just over three minutes. Most songs have two verses, two choruses, nothing more. Sad Man Happy Man, Doughty’s third solo album and follow up to 2005’s Golden Delicious, is more a showcase for the former Soul Coughing singer’s acoustic guitar and his incisive voice and pointed, quirky lyrics. They are his sharpest weapons, and he wields them here sharply, smartly, and to often astonishing success.
Songs like “(I Keep On) Rising Up” and “(You Should Be) Doubly (Gratified)” are the easy candidates for mass dissemination of what exactly Doughty excels at: intelligent, quirky lyrics accessibly wrapped in funk-tinged rock. But the real edges on Sad Man Happy Man reveal themselves after a little digging.
Like “(I Want To) Burn You (Down),” in which not even major-key strummy campfire simplicity can soothe over the implications and confessional power of a lyric like “I have a troublesome girl/ She treats me like a parole officer/ And she checks in from time to time/ Always insisting everything’s fine.” Or Doughty singing, “And I’m listless and lost/ And I cry all the time/ Lost and I cry all the time” in “Year of the Dog,” which may be a traditional Irish pub sing-along if not for the stunning desperation in Doughty’s knife-sharp delivery.
Other standouts are the Daniel Johnston cover “Casper the Friendly Ghost (originally by the great Daniel Johnston),” “Lorna Zauberberg" (a sing-along just slightly off-center), and “How to Fuck a Republican,” a brief but complete gem (with an undeniably great title).
In many ways Sad Man Happy Man draws on the most basic elements of Doughty’s strengths, evident on 2004’s Skittish/Rockity Roll, and less so on his successive albums (Haughty Melodic and the unbearably poppy Golden Delicious). Songs on Sad Many Happy Man like “Diane” and “Nectarine (Part One)” may still come across as too poppy, too embellished. And “(He’s Got the) Whole World (In His Hands)” and “Pleasure on Credit” are delivered in the exact same cadence used by Fabolous in “Young’n.” (Though to Doughty’s credit, the non-sequiturs, like “Not plump, she’s plumpish/ Frumpish bumpish lumpish jumpish,” are at least memorable nonsense. Maybe, to answer a question he posed on Golden Delicious’ “Wednesday (Contra La Puerta)," he is a rapper after all.)
By reducing his songs to their essential matter, Doughty makes Sad Man Happy Man a welcoming record that’s still intelligent and direct. Like a great fiction writer, Doughty knows the power of the sentence, the beauty in placing a single word where it belongs, of expressing emotions with exacting precision. “Then I sat and I started at the waves from my primer gray Ford,” he sings in “Year of the Dog.” He also knows the harm of excess, and has succeeded on this album of placing most everything where it belongs, of wasting very little of his gifts.
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