Madness The Liberty Of Norton Folgate Review

Album. Released 2009.  

BBC Review

A magnificent magnum opus – at last – from Madness.

Michael Quinn 2009

In their 30th anniversary year and a full decade after their last original album, Camden Town's very own Ska boys Madness return with the most sophisticated and satisfying album of their career.

The Liberty of Norton Folgate is a veritable opera in miniature that opens with its own Overture, wherein Mariachi brass and Cockney funeral procession waltz drunkenly hand-in-hand, before anthem-in-waiting We Are London sets the nostalgia-tinged agenda for what follows with a curiously compelling blend of the sentimental, the wistful and the ebullient.

Taking its name from a street on the edge of London's financial district, TLONF is ambitious in both scale (clocking in as the longest playing of the band’s nine-album tally) and, in its vividly populated hymnals and cautionary tales of life in the capital, sheer scope. The lightweight whimsy and plastic cheeriness of Rainbows aside, this is Dickens re-written by Martin Amis and Noël Coward re-worked by the Tiger Lillies. Put another way: it's Madness matured and at the top of their clearly revivified form.

Triumphantly reunited with producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley for the eighth time, there's more than enough on offer to please diehard fans and to surprise (and possibly even delight) staunch refuseniks of the septet's trademark nutty-ness. Don't rush here, however, expecting a My Girl or a Baggy Trousers, or anything, in fact, that has 'chart hit' stamped on it. While the reggae-tinged lead single Dust Devil and bar room piano-led Forever Young are shot through with signature jauntiness, both boast richer narratives, tellingly detailed textures and a pleasingly plangent ruefulness that underpins the whole album.

Especially accomplished is the obvious restraint employed in the many references to the youthful impetuosity of the Madness of old and the gracefully subtle, Proustian nods towards musical peers and predecessors. Adding to the obvious theatricality of it all is a well-managed barrage of scene-setting sounds – the forlorn whistle of a departing steam locomotive in Africa; evening birdsong in Mk II and, not least, the 10-minute-long opera-within-an opera that is the title track.

Think psychedelic-era Beatles meet The Mighty Boosh and The Liberty Of Norton Folgate starts to come into focus in all its imaginatively gluttinous and picaresque glory. Ray Davies will wonder at the grandiose magnificence of it all and weep at its astonishing coherence.

A magnificent magnum opus – at last – from Madness.

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