The Liberty of Norton Folgate Review

September 4, 2009

FolgateArtist: Madness

Album: The Liberty of Norton Folgate

Released: August 18, 2009

Label: Yep Roc

Madness was responsible for filling much of Britain’s billboard charts during the early 1970s to mid 80s.  In fact, they hold the record – along with UB40 – for most weeks spent by a group in the 1980s UK singles charts: 214 weeks.  Arguably one of the greatest ska bands ever, this goofy ensemble was also the author of the international hit “Our House,” which was so popular it inspired a musical by the same name.  The group broke up while recording a new album in 1988 citing artistic differences, but continued to reunite for their Madstock festivals and several other events.  In 1999 they released Johnny the Horse to moderate success.  Then in 2007 Madness announced a new tour and the result of their last two years together is a masterpiece.

The Liberty of Norton Folgate is an intimidating 2-disc testament to the evolution of Madness.  Although still arguably within their 2 Tone style, the album is breaks largely from their old sound and defies easy genre identification.  The Liberty of Norton Folgate begins with an overture almost reminiscent of Mussorgsky, but transitions smoothly into “We Are London.”  That second track pulses with heavy bass and keyboards, punctuated by the horns’ flashing melody.  “We Are London” makes it clear that the band found a new sound, but retained their skill and arguably improved on it.  “Forever young” provides a whisper of the old Madness and moves into “Dust Devil,” which sounds the most like their older work.  Guess what?  It’s their single for the album.  But since being radio friendly is no crime and the group’s former niche, it is carried out with a grace befitting their experience from bludgeoning the radio industry with hits during the 70s and 80s.  However, “Dust Devil” still fits snugly into The Liberty of Norton Folgate along with stranger songs like the title track.

“The Liberty of Norton Folgate” finishes the first disc with an astonishing 10 plus minutes of ska.  Topping the glorious vocals of “On the town” with its sweeping piano, and “Clerkenwell Polka” with it’s insane beat and shouting, the title track of the album is probably the most epic piece of ska ever written.  This is not a word that is generally applied to ska music either, but this track earns it.  Pictures of London streets are painting in Madness’ dark and haunting music.  This is not the madness of youth, but the madness of a wild age and a city of split personality.  Breaking into whistling and a piano having a romp through the song, Madness sings of the freeing effect of the “Technicolor world” most people live in.  The track picks up momentum and carries on its opus into a confrontation of immigration in Britain and the fears of its inhabitants.  Strings and a chorus back up the singer’s description of the conditions immigrants fight through and their need to belong and seek freedom.

As bands grow and mature, especially the more popular ones, the pattern seems to be to write increasingly more contemporary music.  Once that plateau is reached, the group continues to write skillfully, but they succumb to the influence of experience and the almost homogenous synthesis of the vast amounts of music they have come to know and play.  After years of residing within nostalgia and even cover concerts under the band name The Dangermen, Madness have reinvented themselves and produced an album of true craft.

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