Mike Doughty’s latest release, the unwieldy title of which will be abbreviated here as Circles, is much more than a re-hash of Soul Coughing tunes. This is a redemptive, personal album and there’s a lengthy and often unnerving back story to how Doughty arrived at this collection of his once-shunned songs. Here’s a short version as it relates to this album: being in Soul Coughing drove Doughty to the point of detesting his own work, and for a very long time he refused to play most of the songs. So acute was his disdain for the band and the way they made his songs sound, it took him nearly 15 years to reclaim and re-associate them.
According to Doughty’s doting notes that accompanied the album’s press release, the songs on Circles sound more like how he originally envisioned them. The folks who have collected every last snippet from Soul Coughing’s career will be pleasantly surprised and even encouraged by this record, which is the aural equivalent of Doughty rescuing his songs from – and this is his term – “a big fat ball of darkness”.
Doughty’s artistic and personal triumphs aside, the fans know the material and the new spin that this album offers will certainly satisfy. Doughty succeeded in making these songs sound more like the insistent, bassy hip-hop tracks he set out to emulate in the mid-90’s. He and producer Good Goose heal the previously gnarled and distorted “Monster Man” with big, gliding beats and tasteful samples, “Super Bon Bon” has a propulsive dance feel, and “So Far I Have Not Found The Science” flows with four-on-the-floor drums.
Songs like “How Many Cans” and “Sleepless” retain their lyrical darkness, but the music is more reminiscent of 90’s electronic artists than the fractured jazz guile of Soul Coughing. Conversely, the vocal performances on “Super Bon Bon”, “St. Louise Is Listening”, and “So Far I Have Not Found the Science” lend entirely different feelings to the songs. They’re not as frenetic and busy, and there’s a smoothness only age can bring. “Mr. Bitterness” benefits the most from having Doughty’s vocals front and center, not buried by a barrage of effects; the song takes on a more immediate and meaningful tone.
Lyrics are altered a couple of times, perhaps because the guy who wrote them can no longer relate. The “smokin’ Buddha blunt” line is missing from “Sleepless” and “True Dreams of Wichita” features a slightly changed verse. You can hear Doughty grappling with his own words throughout Circles, and not every track is a winner, but in the end he still emerges victorious, having triumphed over his own creations. As sung on “The Idiot Kings”, “everything is fine, fine, fine” with this album.