“The world is dying. Shit is getting serious. Everybody’s lying. It’s impossible to tell the truth…. I’m not exactly sure what I’m supposed to say when it feels like armageddon is a stone’s throw away“. So sings Jay McAllister, aka Beans on Toast, decidedly kicking things off with the epic, and personalised state-of-the-world poetic prose of ‘Open Door Policy’. It’s also his ninth album that he has released on his birthday, 1st December, one for each year since his debut of 2009.
Prolific, for sure. Also unwavering in his commitment to say it how he sees it, rightly or wrongly. Best of all, he generally stays on the right side of ranting and raving, his anger levels ever-so-subtly rising on key songs, but never quite to the level of preaching or indulgent belligerence.
Moreover, this is an album of two halves; the political and the personal. There are many moments on Cushty where McAllister does proclaim that life is sweet, that as far as he is concerned there is so much to live for despite the possibly impending – in his eyes – armageddon. Love for friends, family and lovers, of course. Also for those who do things, whether as artists and creators, or as essential public service workers, for instance. There’s a strong positivity – and will – throughout.
He’s doing his bit, via song, and most importantly not burying his head in the sand. When voices of protest and counter-argument are needed so badly at the moment, now is really not the time to be over-enthused about cute cat pictures or wondering where the best smashed avocado on toast can be found. There is a scary amount of evil at work, here in the UK and Europe, and over the pond (very recently exacerbated by Donald Trump’s hateful and ignorant tweets). Like the early days of Nazism, our gaze is not always sufficiently focussed on the lurking dangers. Even if you are only doing your small bit, it’s an important bit all the same. As an artist, with a voice, McAllister most definitely has his say on things, and is able to articulate with bell-like clarity, how he sees things.
There’s ‘Major Oak’, about a celebrated ancient tree, over 1,000 years old in the Sherwood Forest, but which is being threatened by the activities of Swiss company Ineos (slogan: ‘the word in chemicals’). “Their business and their arrogance obscures their right and wrong, they couldn’t give a toss what the public want“, sings McAllister in his typically no punches pulled, yet engaging sing-talk style. Then there’s the big Pogues-like sound of ‘Smells Like Bullshit’, as he inhales: “I’m sick of slogans, ulterior motives, sponsored and branded events, manufactured consent. Somebody save me!” While ‘The Ignorant Englishman’ addresses his views on the UK’s departure from the European Union whilst expressing his new found love for German culture following his recent tour there: “‘We should be building bridges but instead we’re building walls“.
‘I Think Everybody Should Be Terrified’ is aimed largely at Trump, but with general worldwide application: “A viscous, lying bigot in the all-important chair“, he sings in no uncertain times, the words sounding harsh and clunky on the written page but, when performed by McAllister are delivered in his fabulously croaky poetic metre. If only Trump would re-tweet those sentiments!
Elsewhere, there’s a celebratory approach. To Secret Garden Party (‘SGP’), the festival that is no more, but which McAllister is obviously a big fan of, and with many abiding memories in his memory bank. Again, his straight-forward honesty is just brilliant: “It’s about the drugs and the hedonism, it’s about the art and celebrating all the different forms of creativity“, a wholly realistic and refreshingly coy-free analysis. While a drunken conversation is the starting point for the hilarious ‘The Unlikely Gymnast’, McAllister suddenly making it his mission to make gymnastics sexy (“I talk a lot of shit when I get hammered“). Then there’s the lovely ‘Jamie and Lilly’, about an ordinary same-sex working (one’s a nurse, the other a teacher) couple who live in Brighton, and who got in contact separately with McAllister to request show dedications to their other half. Eventually this loving song was written for them, with an accompanying video. While, ‘Taylor Swift’ began life as a conversation about who you would like to have a drink with, dead or alive. After the usual subjects are rounded up (Lennon, Michaelangelo et al) McAllister decided that it would be his friends and family, first and foremost.
He’s also eschewed the digital approach of some of his previous work, for a folk-roots vibe via a live studio band, that veers from full-on bar room knees up to plaintive acoustic, piano and fiddle embellishments. With some fine playing throughout, but one that never intrudes on the frontman’s singing and lyricism, the band includes Max Thomas (Skinny Lister) on accordion, Matt Millership (Jim Jones and The Righteous Mind) on piano, Jenna Mahone on fiddle, and long time musical partner Bobby Banjo. Throughout Cushty, and perhaps for the first time in McAllister’s recorded career, the music and words are a perfect marriage, the roosty vibe displacing a potential sombre tone for something, despite some of the lyrical heaviness, altogether more celebratory. “Me, I’m a pacifist, eternal optimist,” he sings on ‘Open Door Policy. “I keep on singing, stating the obvious“. Obvious yes, but as he says, optimistic. And life affirming.