Lord, we are truly blessed. The full line-up of Madness reunited with original producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley on their best batch of songs since The Rise & Fall. Add in sessions at Liam Watson’s Toe Rag studios and this is truly manna from heaven.
The Liberty Of Norton Folgate is Madness’s lengthiest album to date and also boasts a 10-minute title track. The latter would have got the nutty boys booted off stage in their ’80s heyday and shows how far they have progressed in their musical maturity.
After the musical homage to their ska roots that was 2005’s The Dangermen Sessions Vol 1, this album is a hymn to Madness’s beloved London. The title refers to the street in London connecting Bishopsgate with Shoreditch High Street, or more specifically the ancient liberty (or parish) of Norton Folgate that now encompasses the Spitalfields district. The fact that the area was a haven for artists and playwrights obviously rang deep for the members of Madness.
For all the historical overtones that permeate The Liberty Of Norton Folgate, this is at heart a pop album through and through. It is everything you would expect of Madness and more. With age the group seems to have nailed the mixture of jaunty beats and regretful nostalgia that they struggled to master during the latter part of their ’80s career.
The album opens with a brief ‘overture’ that betrays the group’s love of music hall and variety shows and also introduces the central melody of the closing title track (of which more later.)
Was there ever a more perfect title for a Madness track than We Are London? This bouncy travelogue of London haunts is the perfect introduction to the album. Suggs may state that “you can make it your hell or heaven plea/live as you please”, but the song is a plea for universal tolerance that encapsulates the idealism at the heart of much of Madness’s music.
These days Madness is much more of an equal songwriting partnership, a fact illustrated by the fact that chief songwriter Mike Barson only has two solo credits on the album. That said, Sugar And Spice is quintessential Barson, its sweet melody offset by an aching tone of regret at the passing of time.
Suggs, often seen as the joker in the pack, is responsible for the album’s catchiest melody. Forever Young is a great sing-along, its slightly daft lyric more than compensated for by the parping horns and irresistible chorus. He also co-writes the stonking That Close with guitarist Chris Foreman, whose presence is very welcome after his brief but acrimonious departure from the line-up during the recording of The Dangermen Sessions.
Of all the members it is Lee Thompson who pulls out the stops on the songwriting front, notching up five co-writing credits with Barson, Foreman and drummer Daniel Woodgate. These include the singles Dust Devil (irritating at first, but the song gradually worms its way into your brain) and NW5 (the track on the album closest in spirit to classic-era Madness).
Even the much-maligned Chas Smash comes up trumps with MK II (co-written with Suggs) and Clerkenwell Polka, the latter a deranged jaunt that is more keeping with something from a Tom Waits album than the group who sang Baggy Trousers.
All of which brings us to the closing title track, a 10-minute epic that is a first for Madness. It’s a bold move but one that largely pays off, incorporating some sweeteners for the pop fans (Suggs’s naughty refrain “a little bit of this, a little bit of that”) and a whole host of interesting stuff for fans of London, Peter Ackroyd and Guardian readers (“in the beginning was the fear of the immigrant”). The musical jerks and twists are all a little mad but perfectly in keeping with the group’s music hall roots.
In a year when Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode have returned with strong albums, it is pleasing to report that Madness (often maligned as pop lightweights) have matched both these groups blow for blow. The Liberty Of Norton Folgate may just be the best thing they have ever recorded.