Madness: The Liberty of Norton Folgate
I liked Madness well enough back in the day, but never really became a true fan. It was contemporaries like The Beat and The Specials that really grabbed my attention. I even have a copy of the much touted “Rise and Fall.” Although enjoyable it may be, the term masterpiece has never come to mind. It took a few years (or decades), but all that has changed with “The Liberty of Norton Folgate.”
I had seen some buzz about the new release, and thought it might be worth checking out. A bit of old Madness fun would have been enough to please, but what I got was something completely other. After all this time Madness has finally arrived as true artists, and produced the finest work of their career.
Don’t be fooled by my previous remarks. If you are thinking that these Ska goofballs have gone pretentious (i.e. boring), think again. “The Liberty of Norton Folgate” could possibly be the most fun artistic statement I have ever heard. Stylistically it reminds me of the Kinks’ “Muswell Hillbillies.” Only we have 2 Tone instead of Country and Bluegrass. They do however share a taste for Dixieland. Just like “Muswell” it is touted as a concept album, but similarly it is more musically conceptual than in narrative. The exception being the title track which is a marriage of both. It is an extended opus with different movements, and in my opinion progressive (that’s right, I dropped the prog bomb on Madness). It makes a great closer, and a proper bookend with the overture. The songs are varied, but flow very nicely from one to another. Obviously a lot of thought was put into this.
Right off of the Overture, hooks begin. “We Are London” grabs from the first “Na na na,” and has the great lyrical sentiment, “You can make it your own Hell or Heaven. Live as you please. Can we make it if we all live together, as one big family.”
“Sugar and Spice” is romantic lament about a youthful romance that reminds me of Squeeze’s “Up the Junction.”
“Forever Young” is classic Ska in composition, but basks in the refinement of experience.
The one that just screams radio single (if there was any viable radio anymore), is “Dust Devil.” Here we have the groovy little humorous fun jam. Call it return to “House of Fun” or “Our House” if you want, but “Dust Devil” can stand up to either and possibly even wipe the floor with them.
The Piano in “That Close” relentlessly keeps you in the tune. It’s a serous number, but still so infectious it demands engrossment.
“MK II” leads me to believe that Ray Davies was definitely in mind during the creative process.
In an odd (yet perfectly appealing ) detour, “On the Town” seems like it comes from Phil Spector’s girl group era. And I don’t say this just because Rhoda Dakar’s vocals are reminiscent of Ronnie Spector.
“Africa” could possibly be the smoothest, and most lushly produced Ska groove ever recorded.
The Dixieland really comes into full flower on “Clerkenwell Polka.” If not for the English accents, you might think this came right from Bourbon Street.
I already mentioned the title track, but it bears further comment. The boys give the best description themselves at the beginning with, “A little bit of this, would you like a bit of that…” The piece is a kitchen sink of ideas, woven together to form a Madness epic. On paper it doesn’t sound like such a great idea, but the cylinders fire on every level.
No matter what your thoughts about Madness, or Ska as a genre, this is a damn fine album. I can’t get enough. Even with some other great albums released in 2009 (and those more likely to win my praise), “The Liberty of Norton Folgate” ranked in my top five. Maturity, and years on the reunion circuit seem to have done wonders. Madness has hit a bold new high, and now all other skinny tied, pointy shoed, baggy panted Pork Pie hat doffed musicians have their work cut out for them.
Mike “Barzo” Barson – keyboards
Graham “Suggs” McPherson – vocals
Chris “Chrissy Boy” Foreman – guitar
Dan “Woody” Woodgate – drums
Lee “Kix” Thompson – sax
Carl “Chas Smash” Smyth – vocals, dancing, horns
Mark “Bedders” Bedford – bass