History has been unkind to Madness. Forever regarded as purveyors of the self-defining, self-created “Nutty Sound”, the North London seven-piece has always had more than one side. There was the Ska-Saturated Madness (circa 1978), the Serious Grown-Up Pop Band Madness (circa 1984-1985) and the Socially Aware Madness (1985-1986).
And they were just the main ones. Throughout its career, Madness strove to evolve its sound to be taken seriously, only for it to be overlooked in favor of the popular baggy-trousers image, which is unfair, really, as The Liberty of Norton Folgate illustrates. It’s Madness’ first album of original material since 1999’s Wonderful. And in many ways, it’s a world away from that long-awaited comeback that hit with less than a punch in the closing months of the 20th century.
But where Wonderful was a hodgepodge of what it does best—a collection of bouncy pop choruses that generally hit the spot yet yielded few potential singles—The Liberty of Norton Folgate snubs the obvious and gleefully does a nutty dance on the grave of Madness chart hit.
That’s right: Madness as a singles act may well and truly be in the past. But by refusing to deliver what is expected of them—and instead putting all their efforts into what is essentially a rock opera—Madness has possibly produced the best album of its 30-year career.
And like the Who’s Tommy, which in 1969 reversed the fellow London act’s fortunes in a way few could have predicted, this is a storming comeback after 2005’s surprisingly dull covers album, The Dangermen Sessions. True, this album is still immediately recognizable as Madness, but the 22 tracks (or 15 on the general release) effortlessly introduce a new aspect to the band. And the whole thing suits the band so perfectly it’s almost extraordinary. If you need a comparison, the album stylistically—lyrically and musically—sits somewhere between 1982’s The Rise & Fall and 1984’s Keep Moving. Yet it has neither the former’s snobbish experimentation nor the latter’s frowning seriousness.
The roots of The Liberty of Norton Folgate can also be clearly traced back to the Our House: A Musical Love Story, which was constructed very much like a musical, with each track supposedly painting a different picture of the once self-governed area of north London known as Norton Folgate.
Yet it epitomizes the band’s love of the city as much as it documents the state of the human mind at middle age. After “We Are London’s reference-packed homage to living in the capital “from the inner city to its furthest parts”, “Sugar and Spice” looks back at young love that has turned sour with age over a two-tone-tinged Motown beat; “Forever Young” warns of the perils of growing old; and “Seven Dials” grins a world-weary smile over a typical early period Madness classic.
There’s also plenty here to suggest that, more than ever, Madness is looking to the Kinks for inspiration. It’s mainly there in the detailed character descriptions—like “Mk II’s melancholic story of a “silver-mohaired boy” and his Jaguar or “Idiot Child”‘s nod to Mrs Hutchinson (who incidentally, was the subject of Madness’ 1981 album track “Mrs Hutchinson”).
But what Madness demonstrates time and again on this album is that it is still an expert at effervescent ska-pop. “Africa”, a track that could be the belated sequel to 1986 farewell single “Waiting for the Ghost Train”, reminds that the band actually has been the masters of maudlin pop for 20-odd years now—virtually no one noticed.
For a pop act who had 20 Top-20 UK hit singles between 1979 and 1985 and enjoyed having more weeks on the singles charts during the 1980s than any other act, a concept album is probably the least-expected career move. And it’s equally less likely to make it any more relevant in today’s music climate.
But older, wiser and with nothing to lose other than hair, Madness has gone and released an album that’s virtually flawless. If the band releases nothing for another ten years, The Liberty of Norton Folgate is enough to prove its members still have it. And hopefully, it will also make the record-buying public realize there’s more to the nutty sound than, well, nuttiness. The album of its career? Very probably.