Most bands produce their best work on their first couple of albums, when they are young, creative, full of energy and youthfull exuberance. For thirty years. Madness, for those that truely listened, bucked that trend, although One Step Beyond, Absolutley and the associated singles could suggest otherwise. The Rise and Fall, suggested what they could offer in years to come, but in the main, like many other bands with an eye on longevity, they created good, worthy and mature pieces of work, but inevitably lost that spark. Live, Madness always produced the goods, childish, witty and energetic, appealing to a wide audience. I saw them last December at the O2 with my girlfriend,(who was more used to seeing Take That and Kylie)and she remarked that it was like a Friday night down the Dog And Duck. She was absolutely right. Looking around, it wasn't an arena filled with thirty-something Mums with their daughters and no-one else. It wasn't filled with said mother and daughters with lots of well-groomed men in tight t-shirts thrown in to the mix either. It was Friday night, pub night. There was old and young, Pearly Kings and Queens, men in suits and bowlers, students, emos', ladies that lunch (my girlfriend) old skinheads and a couple of German tourists standing behind us. This is the appeal of Madness, a broad-reaching, every-man style that no other band has. "The Liberty of Norton Folgate" encapsulates everything that Madness profess to be.
Listening to this album, you can almost pick out the 30 years of infuences. Ian Dury, The Kinks, The Specials, but it would be unfair to listen to this and attribute the sound to other bands. This is Madness, pure and simple and their greatest influence is themselves.
The album plays like a West End musical, perhaps the Our House theatrical run influenced the arrangment(?). As a whole, it is a brilliant piece of musical story-telling, like Lional Bart in his heyday. "We Are London" sets the scene and we are then taken on a tour of London and the people in it, all with a tale to tell. From the lamentation of advancing years and mistakes made (Forever Young), to the party-loving woman who refuses to grow old gracefully (Dust Devil). Teenage love (Sugar and Spice), troublesome boys (Idiot Child)and the heart-rending "On The Town". All the lyrics here are clever and astute without being pretentious and worth taking the time examine. "The Liberty of Norton Folgate" is the obvious jewel in the crown. It is, bold and brilliant and at ten minutes plus is the track to first hold your attention. It is their "Bohemien Rapshosdy" except it makes a lot more sense. Even what I considered the weaker songs "So Close" and "MKII", over time reveal themselves to be wonderful observations on long-standing friendship and the end of friendship/relationship respectivley. Now, I concede, that there isn't a weak song here.
As I said at the begining of this (cadgeing) ramble, most bands reach their pinnacle in the first two albums. Not here. This is the best thing they've done. This is the best thing anyone has done for many years. After thirty years Madness still have the quality, skill, insight and humanity to produce a work of genius. As Chris Forman said in an interview, "I tell you what, this is a good album". Mr Forman, you are so right.