Album Review: Beans on Toast - 'A Bird in the Hand'

While the classic Beans on Toast formula is alive and well on ‘A Bird in the Hand,’ indie folk stalwart Jay McAllister’s latest record is at its best when it trades his trademark political jibes for honest confessionals.

A stalwart of the British indie folk scene, Jay ‘Beans on Toast’ made his name from delivering brutally direct political statements (see: ‘A Whole Lot of Loving’) and humorous anecdotes on drugs and sex (see: ‘M. D. M. Amazing’) over a plucked acoustic guitar. While recent releases such as 2016’s ‘A Spanner in the Works’ have seen some experimentation with synthesizers and drum machines, the trademark simple Beans on Toast songwriting and lyrical style has remained at the core of his musings throughout his career.

Enter ‘A Bird in the Hand.’ This year’s Beans on Toast album, set for release in traditional fashion on December 1st (his birthday), comes at a time of change and maturity in his personal life. Now married with a new-born baby daughter, this album is more of a laid-back afternoon in the sunshine than a dingy night in a London pub.

The words are thoughtful and emotive, the delivery reserved and content, and nowhere is this more apparent than in opening track ‘Another Year.’ Light and floaty without being corny, it cleverly compares the unprofound nature of birthdays in your adult years with the excitement and new-fangled discovery of a new person entering one’s world. Listening to the once provocative and angsty McAllister go through a personal journey alongside his daughter makes for one of the most touching moments on the album, and will reward long-time fans of his music and message.

The soft and candid ‘Magic’ dives deeper into the intricate details of the emotional journey of his daughter’s birth. Instrumentally even breezier than the opener, it justifies the serene outlook of the album, giving a nod to the strength of women along the way.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Beans on Toast record without a topical observation or two. ‘Here at Homerton Hospital,’ stands out in this regard. Paying homage to multicultural identity of our NHS, it winds through the corridors of a busy medical workplace, drawing sketches of its diverse staff – “There’s a security guard from the Isle of Man/and a paediatrician from Pakistan.” Wholesome and cheery, it’s the perfect political statement for ‘A Bird in the Hand’ to make.

Lead single ‘Alexa’ on the other hand is the one moment of disorder in the otherwise smooth track list, blarting out 3 minutes of comical pub-politics at Amazon’s voice-activated virtual assistant. (Standout observation – “How long will it be until the Amazon warehouse is bigger than the Amazon jungle?”

The album certainly has its highlights, allowing Jay to finally indulge in that sense of calm and happiness he’s been hinting at since 2015’s ‘Rolling Up the Hill.’ However, at occasional moments this sacrifices some of the energy and perspective of earlier Beans on Toast records. ‘Good Health & Happiness’ and ‘Watching the World Go By’ are fine but don’t say much worth talking about and while ‘Please Give Generously’ is well-intentioned, it’s appeal for people to give to the homeless can’t help but feel unaware when Jay has historically been the first to point out that ordinary people are ending up with less and less in their pockets.

At this point in Jay’s career, his fans are always going to enjoy hearing what he has to say over some guitar chords. Writing an entirely positive and wholesome album whilst maintaining an original artistic perspective is an incredibly difficult task, and while ‘A Bird in the Hand’ has its shallower moments, many of its confessions make for a rewarding and thought-provoking listen. An album allowing long-time listeners to mature with its writer, ‘A Bird in the Hand’ is consistently sweet and insightful. It’s a far cry from the raw defiance and subversion of his earlier records, but that maturity simply makes it more worthwhile.

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