Doughty goes small with an intimate album of songs accompanied mostly by acoustic guitar and cello. It's a successful u-turn from his overproduced last album.
After a big national tour with a four-piece band in support of 2008's Golden Delicious, Mike Doughty spent the latter half of the year and the beginning of 2009 playing acoustic shows with just his friend Andrew "Scrap" Livingston on cello for accompaniment. Considering that Doughty spent the first few years of his post-Soul Coughing solo career touring all on his own with just his acoustic guitar, it's no surprise that he really enjoyed this back-to-basics approach. Sad Man Happy Man reflects that new/old philosophy. It's largely made up of acoustic songs with just Doughty and Livingston playing, although occasionally there are drums and other subtle backing instruments.
The album opens with "Nectarine (part two)", a direct follow-up to part one, which appeared on Golden Delicious. The original was a sweet song about happily leaving everything else behind just to be together. Part two finds Doughty dealing with dual impulses that come from a breakup. "Oh Nectarine / Will you love me right again? / Want to thank you, want to ease you from my mind / Want to see you / Want to hurt you so bad". It's the first of several relationship songs on the album. The press materials note that he recently went through a breakup, and it's clear he's working through it using his music. "Lorna Zauberberg" is a pleasantly rolling folk-rock song on the surface, but Doughty catches your attention partway through with the line "A weeping tranny is cradling a steak knife / And you're happily slugging Rob Roys with your man" as he goes through his life after his woman leaves him. Near the end of the album, the bitterness flows on "How to Fuck a Republican". The lyrics are very matter-of-fact, but the title and dreary, downbeat sound give it away. Contrasting this is "Diane", a well-executed song about being on the road and longing for your significant other with a very catchy chorus.
As a bit of a surprise, several songs on Sad Man Happy Man recall Doughty's days in Soul Coughing, moreso than anything else he's done in his solo career. First single "Doubly Gratified" is a prime example. Behind a spare guitar-bass-drums groove, he repeats "You should be / You should be doubly doubly / You should be doubly gratified" over and over between verses that he speak-sings. It sounds like he's aiming for a new version of "Super Bon Bon" or, more likely, "Circles", but it mostly ends up just sounding like he's writing the same song less successfully. "Pleasure on Credit" has a catchy guitar riff and bassline and a strong chorus, but what really makes the song work is Doughty's stream-of-consciousness rap in the verses. He strings seemingly random references together into some very clever rhymes, such as when he pairs "Fun fun, persuas-ee-on" with "Smart girl, not the crazy one". Less successful is "(He's Got the) Whole World (in His Hands)", which has Doughty speaking the chorus of the traditional church song while inventing completely new rapped verses. The lyrics here are still clever, but the song itself is tuneless and nearly beatless, as Doughty accompanies himself with two repeating guitar chords that never change for the duration of the track.
Overall, though, the good outweighs the bad here by a fairly wide margin. "(I Keep On) Rising Up" is more typical of Doughty's recent work. It's a catchy pop song with a bit of a funky feel and a great melody, and is one of the album's highlights. "(I Want to) Burn You (Down)" is a brisk two minutes of excellence that contains the album's best line: "I have a troublesome girl / She treats me like her parole officer / She checks in from time to time / Always insisting that everything's fine". The stripped-down approach works very well for the most part, allowing Doughty's clever wordplay to take center stage while also letting him emphasize his melodic songwriting. Livingston switches effortlessly between plucked and bowed basslines, sometimes within the same song, and he complements Doughty very well. Golden Delicious was big on production, but a little light on the hooks. Sad Man Happy Man is more successful, bringing those hooks back while leaving out the slick, overproduced feel that was a bit much last time out.