In these nostalgic times, nobody would be too surprised (or even disappointed) if Madness continued to please their many fans by re-visiting old classics such as “Our House”, “Baggy Trousers” and “My Girl”. Instead, some 30 years after their glory days, they have triumphantly reformed to deliver possibly their finest album, the intriguingly titled “The Liberty of Norton Folgate”.
Like Ali against Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle, Madness have ripped up the form book and delivered a knock-out album. The ageing tasty geezers have somehow found enough energy and inspiration to upset the odds one more time.
With The Specials also dazzling in a series of blistering gigs, the 2 Tone revival is alive and kicking. The last time this music was in the ascendant the economy was down in the dumps and the streets were ska’d by inner city riots. This sounds eerily familiar, and the Madness music perfectly captures this mood of sentimentality and rueful realism. People sometimes forget that Madness were not just about fun and hilarity, but were the masters of maudlin, bittersweet music.
“The Liberty of Norton Folgate” is, of all things, a concept album about London, the city of nations, and is a historical and musical tribute to its lively mixed-up mongrel culture. It might be argued that every song Madness have ever written is about London in some way, but this album makes explicit the group’s special relationship with the capital city, especially in “We Are London”, a glorious appreciation of the city’s eclectic mix of cultures, a call to arms for the citizens to come together and a journey through “its inner city to its furthest parts”. The London theme runs through the album with tracks like “NW5”, “Clerkenwell Polka” and “Seven Dials”. Even a song about “Africa” manages to name check Holloway.
"No undertakers required today, thank you"
The album takes its name from an area in Spitalfields, located between the jurisdiction of two police stations, therefore making it impossible to enforce the law. As such, in Victorian times, Norton Folgate was a thriving hub of artists, poets and bohemians, occupying their own ‘city’ under their own rules. It all sounds rather fun and romantic, which probably explains why Madness have used the concept of the Liberty to influence their new album.
All the trademark musical elements remain in place: ska and reggae overtones, tinkling keyboards, mournful sax and the whiff of the music hall (complete with bowler hats!) The boys have always been great musicians, but have found another dimension on this record, which swaggers along with a deserved confidence. The songs have emerged from a veritable melting pot of influences: imagine an impresario asking Peter Ackroyd and Charles Dickens to write lyrics for The Kinks, getting Kurt Weill and John Barry to arrange the music and then inviting Ian Dury to guest on vocals. However, the sound unmistakably belongs to Madness, pure and simple.
This superb piece of musical story-telling features some cracking tales: “Sugar and Spice” chronicles a disintegrating relationship; “Forever Young” laments advancing years; “Idiot Child” is a short, sharp character sketch about the boy who never grew up; “Dust Devil” refers to the party loving woman who refuses to grow old gracefully; “That Close” pines for a summer love; “Rainbows” is about seizing the day.
"Nice whistle, Suggs"
However, the title track is the obvious jewel in the crown, a mini musical about crime, immigration and the hustle and bustle of life in the Liberty of Norton Folgate. It’s ten minutes long, which is unusual for a tune by one of our greatest ever singles bands, but it’s also a bold and brilliant masterpiece, morphing into several different movements. Suggs sits us down and regales us with the history of the Liberty with “a little bit of this and a little bit of that”. Musically, the song features fairground oompah, pub piano, a Viennese waltz and an upbeat jig (“have a banana”) before a rip-roaring climax straight out of Bollywood. The lyrics are exquisite, including Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, a Chinaman “trying to sell you moody DVDs” and a great argument against racism that makes you proud to be British (“in the beginning was a fear of the immigrant”). Fantastic stuff.
The Nutty Boys have grown up. While this record obviously chronicles London in all its moods, it also maps out adult life in all its complexity, disappointment and anxiety. It’s an exceptional thing – a truly great album in the autumn of the band’s career that will put a smile on your face and a spring in your step. While encompassing everything we thought we knew about Madness, it’s actually gone One Step Beyond.