Review: Michael J Dolan – Dress to Depress
Dress to Depress, Michael J Dolan’s first live album, situates him firmly on the cordial misanthrope spectrum, which is unsurprising given that the track list includes titles such as “Hate Your Friends”, “Sheer Fucking Romance” and the pleasingly succinct “Dating/Breakups/Lying.”
Even if you had somehow picked this up blindly in search of a cheerful Sunday afternoon pick me up in the Pat Monahan/Michael McIntyre mould, your illusions would be shattered within the first five minutes when Dolan thanks his audience for coming when “it’s wet and dark and the streets are full of pricks”. Yet thankfully on the whole Dolan treads the tricky line between enjoyably cynical raconteur and worrying depressive with verve, sidestepping morbid self pity through a perversely charming, if entirely despairing, persona.
As with the best “I hate the world almost as much as I hate myself” performers, the Stewart Lees, Dylan Morans and Doug Stanhopes of contemporary stand up, Dolan makes an art out of indiscriminate hatred. A skit at the start of Dress to Depress about how everyone secretly hates their friends is not especially original, but it is unusually perceptive and deliciously dark, with the brutal observation that ultimately our friends are little more than “time thieves calling you up and stealing your hours.”
Dolan’s wickedly well observed attacks on the empty headed social etiquette of birthday parties and weddings are reinforced by occasional, brilliant spasms of surrealism, such as the desperate invitation dodging excuse: “Sorry I can’t come…my Gran’s eroding.” Although the show is generally an observational, vaguely autobiographical ramble, Dolan also has a strong ear for one-liners that brilliantly skewer our misplaced delusions. As he cuttingly comments when explaining why he dislikes holidays: “Do you really think you’re going to hate yourself less if it’s hotter?”
Yet, whilst Dress to Depress presents so much to admire, there are some reservations here. The set flags a little towards the end as Dolan loses some of his vitriolic energy, and later material feels less unpredictable and developed. Material about Dolan’s girlfriend, and women in general, occasionally veers worryingly close to Bernard Manning mother-in-law stereotypes, as Dolan establishes clichés (women have cats as a substitute for babies, women watch god-awful trash TV, etc.) that he fails to challenge or demolish.
Given that the show’s opening and first half demonstrate such keen observational intelligence, it’s strange that some of the later work seems so blithely accepting of obvious generalisations; and it is all the more frustrating given that Dolan is clearly above this.
The misanthrope is often the biggest narcissist of them all, and so it follows that Dolan’s strongest material emerges through extensive bouts of self-deprecation, when unflinching self analysis takes over. His most searing observations, centred on his futile search for happiness, wittily capture the morbid boredom of the directionless thirty-something. Dress to Depress is by no means a flawless show, but it is a promising and highly enjoyable listen from an act who at his best serves as a prime example of the lovable misanthrope, ranting himself irresistibly towards a kind of delirious catharsis.