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TBTS Reviews: The Liberty of Norton Folgate

July 30, 2009

The Liberty of Norton Folgate

Madness (Yeproc/Lucky Seven)

One thing most Yanks may never truly understand is just how popular the late seventies/early eighties ska-pop outfit Madness truly was, and just how reverently the British remember the band today. While they widely remain thought of as a one-hit wonder stateside, for the 1982 hit “Our House,” the Jamaican-obsessed boys from Camden Town were a very specific band for a very specific cultural moment in the UK’s musical ethos. 

Outside of 2005’s The Dangerman Sessions, in which the band recorded the ska and reggae covers which first popularized Madness them to London audiences in late seventies, The Liberty of Norton Folgate is the ensemble’s first album since 1999’s Wonderful, which was itself the band’s first release since 1985. Sometimes, these long absences of original work from an artist can beget exaggerated expectations, which can be impossible for a band this memorable to ever surmount. How does a group proceed, then? For starters, everyone’s thirty years older. And Madness’ signature sound isn’t exactly pervasive on the airwaves anymore. Yet everyone’s waiting to see what’s next. Talk about pressure. 

One way to handle things is not to sweat it, key in on the very things that made you a fantastic band to begin with, and just pour yourself into it. Despite Madness’ island influences, frontman Suggs and the gang have always focused on the issues facing working class England and its blue-collar youth. Look past the bouncy ska and you’ll see a band rooted in its origins and devoted to its humble beginnings in a ruddy-faced London. So a valentine to the city’s eccentric East End seems to fit perfectly within Madness’ wheelhouse. 

Norton Folgate, after its gypsy carnival-esque overture, unfolds into a vivid collection of character sketches centered around the denizens of the short stretch of road linking London’s Bishopsgate and Shoreditch neighborhoods. Here reside libertines, con men, laborers, musicians, bohemians and journeymen — eccentrics who once walked the same cobblestone streets as Jack the Ripper. “We Are London” serves as the album’s clarion call for these characters to take their places, and what follows is a heartfelt collection of remembered personalities, like Dickensian characters leaping off the page. 

Madness is — I’m very pleased to say — once again in fine form, sounding fantastic and never reaching for a younger version of themselves that they won’t grasp. Instead, the recurring elements of the band’s most memorable music are all on display for musical tours through Chelsea Mews in “MKII” and Kentish Town on the bouncy “NW5.” The wayward children of Spittle Fields are addressed and witnessed to in “Idiot Child” and “Forever Young,” and the ten minute title track finale recounts the history of the real-life Norton Folgate and surrounding areas without feeling schmaltzy or faux-sentimental. The entire album has the feel of an off-the-West End London musical itself, raw and real and full of the emotion felt by imagining how life once was lived. Fun at moments, wistful at others, Norton Folgate is the type of album you might never expected Madness to re-emerge with — instead of rehashing their youth, they take their own strong points in a new, thoughtful, decidedly more mature direction. It works. And it’s great.

Listening to the album, it’s both easy and difficult to see why Madness have eluded mainstream American success. It’s difficult because their music is so very instantly endearing in so many ways, a sweet mixture of ska, reggae and traditional pop which taps into something incredibly life-affirming. But it’s easy to see how the U.S. may have slipped from their grasp; lyrically the band belongs intimately to the United Kingdom, devoting itself to a specific group of people who once needed it, and perhaps still do. Lucky for them, Madness has returned to not only paint a musical mural of a long-forgotten London past, but to do so in its own distinct, beloved way.

The Liberty of Norton Folgate is currently available for purchase on iTunes, at Yeproc Records (US) and at the band’s own Madshop (UK).

4 Comments
  1. July 30, 2009 5:00 pm

    First

  2. July 30, 2009 9:38 pm

    Well, I can tell TBTS is arriving because we’ve attracted the kind of person who thinks “First” is a cool thing to say.

    At any rate, I didn’t know any of this about Madness, and I’m now swayed to give them a try. Good job opening eyes on this side of the Atlantic, C.M.

  3. August 16, 2009 6:39 pm

    Great review – as someone with a 30 year allegiance to Madness who lives on “their” side of the pond it’s easy to forget that there are areas where they are maybe not as appreciated as they are on their home patch. So to read an intelligent and erudite review such as this written from another perspective to mine that still picks up on the greatness, beauty and creativeness of the new album is something to behold.

  4. August 17, 2009 3:47 am

    Excellent review CM, one of the best and most considered I’ve read. I hope it encourages a few people on your side of the pond to give it a listen, they won’t be disappointed.

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