Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Madness -- The Liberty Of Norton Folgate

Madness -- The Liberty Of Norton Folgate (Lucky Seven)

The first album of original Madness material in almost a decade finds the Nutty Boys tackling a concept album. Here, the band looks at the Norton Folgate neighborhood. Quite frankly, as concepts go, this doesn’t force the band to stretch itself too much, as Madness has always excelled at chronicling life in London in small slices. But the concept inspires Madness to do what it does best -- chronicle life in London in small slices.

The only concession to the level of pretentiousness that should accompany a concept album is the title track, which a series of tiny songs strung together. As discussed further below, not only does Madness earn the right to a bit of Brian Wilson level ambitiousness, the number is a complete success.

It should be no surprise that Madness could age well, since the band’s last few albums were dominated by mid-tempo songs that were inspired equally by music hall sounds, The Kinks and ska. This album proves that they can continue to take this approach for as long as they want.

This means hooky pop songs galore. Just between you and me, most of these songs aren’t really part of the concept. What I mean by that is that observational pop is observational pop, no matter how you couch it.

Two stellar examples of this are “Dust Devil” and “Sugar and Spice”. The former is the first single off the album. The song is keyed by a supple reggae based rhythm with winning lyrics about a twenty-something gal who is burning the candle at both ends: “On top of the day break/and the last one to bed.” The song has two insidious hooks -- Mike Barson’s keyboard line that snakes through the verses and the superb singalong chorus. Brilliant.

“Sugar and Spice” shows that Madness has retained its mastery over the bittersweet that was typified on songs like “Grey Day”. Musically, this is Madness at its Britpoppiest, the type of song that launched a thousand Blurs. The jauntiness of the melody of the chorus is undercut by the portent of the piano and the resignation in Suggs’ voice as he chronicles the rise and fall of a couple for whom everything seemed possible when they were in high school. This is basically the response to The Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”.

Oddly enough, one of the most affecting tracks on the album is about escaping from London. “Africa” is simply a beautiful piece of music, with the band turning to some light percussion, creating a languid groove with a melody that meshes music hall with a bit of Brazilian flair. In this song, Suggs is a guy who has woken up from a bender who “couldn’t get to work if I wanted to,” who just wants to go back to sleep and dream of going to Africa. This is just plain lovely.

I’m just scratching the surface, as there are so many other strong songs, such as “Rainbows”, “Idiot Child”, “On the Town” and “Forever Young”. But, as I noted earlier, it all leads up to the title cut.

In the liner notes, Suggs describes the literary inspirations for this album, William Taylor’s This Bright Field and Peter Ackroyd’s A Biography Of London. That’s what Madness aims to equal on “The Liberty of Norton Fulgate”.

The song winds through ska and klezmer and Eastern European sounds, among others, while walking through the neighborhood and chronicling its history. Africans, Chinese, Malaysians, Welsh, Irish and others find their way to “Shadwell’s Tiger Bay.” They all end up there selling their wares by day and dancing in the streets by night.

While moving from style to style, the band keeps coming back to a definable chorus that centers the whole epic. This is Brian Wilson, Ray Davies and Randy Newman rolled up into one, with the liberal spirit that fueled the whole Two-Tone movement coming through loud and clear.

The song reaches a thematic climax near the end with the simple refrain, “In the beginning was/the fear of the immigrant.” But they all moved by the Thames and look at what we have now. As this song reveals, not only were the fears unfounded, they should give anyone all the more reason to cherish London, or any place where the whole world lives in one city.

With this song, and the whole album, Madness has put an exclamation point on its career, releasing a definitive statement (even though it wasn’t absolutely necessary). If they weren’t already considered pop royalty, this album should tip the balance in their favor.

[NOTE: This album is apparently coming out in the U.S. on Yep Roc. Also, there is a deluxe version with more tunes that did not make the final release. Based on this, I'm hoping Yep Roc gets that out so I can buy it at a reasonable price.]


pghhead said...

Very good review, Mike. You've got my interest!! Thanks for the heads-up notice on this one. I sort of dismissed Madness as not being able to keep it going and I also didn't need anymore ska in my collection. But this sounds quite more than that and wonderful as well. I'll be looking for that Yep Roc release. Thanks.

litlgrey said...

More than a very good review, you've written a very smart, analytical review without ever losing focus on Madness' charm. I am very impressed with the level of communicating you've achieved in this review. There's not a lot like it in what used to be called "music journalism."