(Xtra Mile Recordings, out 1 Dec 2017)
A favourite exclamation of both Del Boy and Jamie Oliver, the word Cushty suits the chirpy, always-gets-his-round-in, man of the people vibe of singer-songwriter Beans on Toast. As is his tradition this, his ninth album, comes out on his birthday, and collates the socio-political musings he’s been having in the past year. Beans plays in the speak-singing folk style that earned Nizlopi their number one in 2005, and which has never really departed our earholes since – twee, buskery and beard-friendly – and of that musical ilk, Cushty is a perfectly passable exhibit. You wouldn’t cock a snook at the fiddle-playing and strumming if it wafted over the airwaves in your local coffee shop. Provided you had no love for the nuances of language and politics, that is…
Facile does not begin to cover the lyrics on this album. Not since Boy George sang, “War is stupid and people are stupid” has political posturing been so banal. With protest this limp, the Tories will be with us til 2050.
“The world is dying / shit is getting serious / everybody’s lying / it’s impossible to tell the truth,” is the system-smashing opening line of Open Door Policy. “Everybody voted for the greedy in charge,” he continues, steamrollering through the actual facts of the British electoral system in search of a platitude. Humblebrags and virtue signalling are soon to follow. “I’ll carry a stranger’s bag downstairs, but I can’t carry the weight of the world.”
Billy Bragg, a clear influence, used to elevate domestic settings to things of beauty. Listen to how The Home Front, St Swithin’s Day, Levi Stubbs’ Tears captured depths of humanity in the details of the everyday. But where Bragg found beauty and tragedy and heartbreak in the mundane, Beans on Toast just finds more mundanity. “There’s a veggie lasagne / left from last night / she could warm it up / and do a little salad on the side,” he sings on Jamie and Lilly. Is it metaphor? Is it comedy? No, it’s bland description, nothing more.
“The rent in Brighton isn’t cheap / which is annoying because that’s where they live,” scans as badly on record as it does written down. “Teaching and nursing / it’s been a really long day”. A-ha! Public sector workers from generation rent. It turns out Jamie and Lilly are Corbynistas-by-numbers. You don’t have to read the Daily Mail to find the characterisation cynical and risible. “Teachers and nurses are the fabric of society / they deserve to be treated like royalty.” Thanks, Beansy. Now tell us that benefit cuts are lame and racists are not very nice people.
The Ignorant Englishman speaks profoundly about Brexit. “You know? They didn’t even give that money to the NHS. It was a big, fat lie on a big, red bus. F**king politicians are a right bunch of c**ts.” Like a straight copy and paste from the comments section of the Daily Mirror.
“Did you know that Germany’s not actually called Germany?” he then reveals. “It’s called Deutschland. Germany’s just what other countries call it. And that’s a funny thing to get your head around. I mean, imagine if you were called ‘Steve’ and everybody else called you ‘John’. I know there’s a language barrier, but really? Come on, we should be building bridges, but instead we’re building walls.” He’s just gibbering now. Who’s his target audience for this? Six year olds?
You could forgive this kiddy politics in a wet-behind-the-ears newcomer, but Beans on Toast is 36 years old. At a similar age, Elvis Costello was plotting Thatcher’s funeral in Tramp The Dirt Down. Compare and contrast. Beans on Toast broadcasts the same righteous anger with none of the sophistication.
And the triteness doesn’t stop at the politics either.
“If you could have a drink with anybody dead or alive, fictional or non-fictional, who would you have a drink with?” he asks the listener at the start of Taylor Swift, before bursting into song, “Well that’s the question asked to me by a friend of mine, while making conversation on a long drive.” Exactly. The conversation was a time-filler. Ergo, not a great subject for a song. After some thinking he arrives at Bill Hicks (who would probably tell him where to shove it) and then parades his right on credentials again, inviting Noam Chomsky, Kate Tempest, Muhammad Ali down the pub. And to show he can have a laugh – the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles too. If he could choose the venue? The Monarch in Camden Town, of course.
A partly redeeming feature is his affection for England’s ancient heritage. There’s a homage to the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, and a Stonehenge song (A303). But then there’s also the plonky piano nursery rhyme, SGP, a eulogy to the recently demised Secret Garden Party. Memory of a Free Festival it isn’t. “A weekend of adventure, pure, unadulterated fun”, “a slice of the ticket price goes to funding independent artists.” It sounds like he’s reading the press release. “Back when this party started, there was nothing quite like it, fifteen years ago no-one else was really doing this, and it became the blueprint for festivals that we know and love, so let’s give it the respect it deserves”. These are actual song lyrics, not marketing copy.
Cushty is a triumph of posture over artistry. It sounds like the unedited journal ramblings of someone concerned only with saying the “right” things. Beans on Toast is probably well meaning, lovely to his family and friends, and generous to charity, but this glib, preaching-to-the-converted slacktivism in album form is part of the problem, not the solution. The revolution does not start here.