Here’s what I’ve decided (just now): everyone gets to pick one strummy-hummy acousti-troubadour to like for free. You don’t have to justify it to anyone (not that you have to justify what you like to anyone anyway), you can pick any one you want – and we all know the kinda guys I’m talking about here. Anyway, you pick your guy and then you root like hell for that guy until he’s the last guy standing in the coffee house (you can also root for a female acousti-troubadour, but they seem harder to come by. I think the equivalent is the twenty-something street corner chanteuse). You buy his albums, go to his shows, and basically support the dude with your whole heart. Share his music with others, but don’t be a missionary prick about it – if people don’t like your guy, that’s their business and their right. They’re probably just rooting for a different guy.
I chose Mike Doughty a long time ago. Like the first time I heard Skittish. I think Doughty is the best at what he used to call “small rock” (although he upgraded to “medium rock” around the time he made Haughty Melodic, I still like describing his stuff as “small rock.” If you are Mike Doughty and you’re reading this, I’ll buy you a beer next time you’re in Los Angeles, and we can discuss) because, as he showed on Skittish, he has an earnestness about him that dovetails nicely with his innate weirdness and produces more interesting small rock than that of, for example, Jason Mraz (yeah, I’m gonna pick on Jason Mraz. You know why? The thing I hear underlying every Jason Mraz song I’ve ever heard – and I’ve sat through more than one of his albums – is a sense that Jason Mraz thinks that Jason Mraz is really fucking clever and he needs you to know that he knows he’s clever. And he’s not. He’s insipid. Sorry, Mraz, but I’m definitely not yours).
Two albums separate Skittish from Doughty’s brand spanking new Sad Man Happy Man and the early buzz is that Sad Man Happy Man is some kind of long overdue trip back to the Skittish well. I guess I can see that, but I’m not one of these people who has been sweating every Doughty release since Skittish waiting for another “Sweet Lord in Heaven” (although that will forever remain my favorite Doughty tune. It’s just too fucking beautiful). I liked Haughty Melodic a lot; I didn’t like Golden Delicious a lot, but I gave Doughty a pass on that one because I want him to keep making music and, as I said, he’s my guy. I’m rooting for him. I figure that I’ll love about 90% of his stuff and Sad Man Happy Man probably bumps that up to 96% (it’s a complicated formula I used to determine that Golden Delicious is equal to precisely four percent of Mike Doughty’s solo output and I won’t bore you with the details. Just trust that the numbers don’t lie). It’s really awesome, really basic, and occasionally silly – everything I want a Doughty album to be.
I often get the feeling that Doughty records all his stuff in a small apartment, and the cover of Sad Man Happy Man does nothing to convince me otherwise. It suits the feel of the album, which opens with the Doughty-folkish “Nectarine (Part Two)”, a great little ditty that should hopefully shut up the “Make another Skittish” crowd. The truth of the matter is that Sad Man Happy Man synthesizes all the stuff Doughty’s done right since Skittish with the brevity-is-the-soul-of-awesome aesthetic that dominated that record. There are drums and weird cello bits on many of the songs and Doughty even gets his scream on at the end of “Lord Lord Help Me Just to Rock Rock On”, which is something I’ve never heard him do before.
Doughty has always been one of the best phrase makers in music and he’s not lacking in that department here: on “Lorna Zauberberg”, he says, “At breakfast, we get by on charm alone.” Later, he has a girl who “treats me like a parole officer” (“I Want to Burn You Down”) and later points out that “time tells butter-fat lies/ sweet lousy cupcakes of lies.” (“Year of the Dog”). Butter fat lies, I surmise, are like normal lies but they give you heart attacks. The other thing I love about Mike Doughty is the way he plays freely and fearlessly with word pronunciation and vowel sounds – his prowess here is best exemplified on “Pleasure On Credit” (where he pronounces “persuasion” to rhyme with “smart girl/ not the crazy one”), “Diane” (where the name that is the chorus sometimes sounds like “Diane” and sometimes sounds like “dyin'”) and “(He’s Got the) Whole World (in His Hands)”.
“Pleasure On Credit” (also features “John Paul Jones/ bustlin’ the hedges”) and “Whole World” (Sorry, Mr. Doughty – I already overuse parentheses on this blog and I can’t have you cramping my style) are two great examples of something that I will only let Mike Doughty get away with: half-assed speak/rapping. It’s too rhythmic to be simply talking but also not facile enough to rival, say, Atmosphere. Doughty has done this off and on since back in his Soul Coughing days and I guess I have to chalk it up to how much I like the wordplay because I know if, say, Jack Johnson did it, I’d fucking hate him (more).
Of course “Pleasure” and “Whole World” are a couple bits of comic relief on an album that has plenty of beauty to offer. “Year of the Dog” is one of Doughty’s finest moments, and “Diane” is also a steaming hot cup of lovely. I don’t know if Sad Man Happy Man will win Doughty any new fans because I feel like you either like him immediately when you hear him or you’re not going to like him. His style is singular and won’t appeal to the broadest audience, but that’s part of his charm (to me, anyway). Doughty is a treasure that will be found and adored by a lucky few and I’m just happy to be one of ’em.