I love how Mike Doughty’s out touring America right now playing Soul Coughing songs and I’m just sitting at home like… “American Car”! “American Car”!
I was talking to my Bluetooth speaker, of course, either my one at home or at work, where last night I plotted Haughty Melodic next to Blonde on Blonde, finding the latter to be relatively “bland on bland” by comparison, at least in spots (ahem… “Visions of Johanna”).
Ok, by typical Friday night restaurant standards Haughty Melodic is a tad bit “depressing” — it’s got lines like “Why do I have to wake up anyway?” and “When your faith in life is gone / Come and speak to me”. Well, it’s got Dave Matthews on it, so I doubt Doughty’s sweating it too much. Also, “American Car” is one of the most indescribably beautiful songs of all time — it’s got that same distinct snow-thawing sense of renewal that ran through Soul Coughing’s most authoritative early work like “Lazybones” and most of side a of Irresistible Bliss, as well as maybe “Moon Sammy” and the more focused swatches of Ruby Vroom.
“American Car” is positioned six and so really sort of ties Haughty Melodic together but a certain, energetically monochromatic but genuine nonetheless track really jumped out at me last night, which was “Grey Ghost,” track 10. It’s positioned discreetly between the garishly amorous “Sunken-Eyed Girl” (I’m continually relieved that I’m not writing a post about “Sunken-Eyed Girl,” as it were) and “His Truth is Marching on,” which thematically handles matters of deity in lyrics. By comparison, “Grey Ghost” is juxtaposed beautifully and is sharply, almost dangerously personal, while also oddly metaphoric, the work of Doughty’s own marijuana mosquitoes flying around his mind on some lonely night which is transcendently his own, almost more so than is possible.
One particularly poignant thing about “Grey Ghost” is that one portion of the lyrics sets the scene in Memphis. Now, this is notable because Memphis, while now his home, wouldn’t seem to have played such a crucial role in his life until recently, with as Wiki reports “In 2015, he moved to Memphis, TN.”
In general, Haughty Melodic, though inspired and substantial, in my opinion, is by and large filled with some pretty conventional rock and roll — songs with big electric guitars, drums and verse/chorus structures, the everyday aspects of which Doughty can get away with via some strong, distinctive lyricism and a great, hearty singing voice with which he seems to project emotion at will. Even “Busting up a Starbucks,” given some work-induced anger, as proved itself over the years to at least be “not that bad,” a listenable album cut before the emotional peaks of “White Lexus” and “American Car.”
“Grey Ghost” is sort of an anomaly in mood on this badger here — it’s so spare and minimal that almost nobody on the planet listening would spot it initially as an important track. They’d be far more gravitationally pulled to the meat-and-potatoes mainstream-rock of “Unsingable Name” and “I Hear the Bells” or maybe the compassionate, humanistic closeur “Your Misfortune.” But “Grey Ghost” is a life boat for people who have lost faith in conventional rock and roll, or just run over it with their own stoned ruminations amongst listens over the years that they’ve flattened it into a proverbial shapeless smear.
In terms of chord progression, “Grey Ghost” has got you covered, with those first bars always emphatically landing back on that tonic chord, the major-key interface tensely belying the song’s strict melancholy and disciplined lack of climax. One nice thing about the minimalistic take on the music is such a thing gives Doughty a platform for unleashing some of his serious poetic metaphor (his college degree is in creative writing), with the term “ghost” only loosely defined and then the “stars,” another term which tends to conjure strong energy, having their identities skewed into something that can be “fallen through.”
I don’t HAVE to ask Mike Doughty whether he’s influenced by Southern gospel and early founding rock and roll like Chuck Berry. It’s already written thickly into this project — this song has that same unmistakable sense of longing and urgency that went into those other major-chord exploits. And even though the lyrics are so vague and nonsensical, in a way, you know exactly what the song is about. Casting off deity and aesthetic ideals, the song is simply about being alone and human, something we all knew we’d be, at some point or another, and during which nothing else seems to matter.