The Liberty of Norton Folgate
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Reviewed by David Medsker
If the pairing of "Madness" and "concept album" has you terrified, fret not: The Liberty of Norton Folgate, overly dramatic title aside – it’s a reference to the legal independence of a group of streets north of London’s financial district – is one dandy little pop record. Had it come out in place of Mad Not Mad, the group’s final album before they initially disbanded, it would have sent four singles into the UK Top Ten, maybe more. Yes, it’s that good.
Indeed, Madness pull a rather impressive stunt here in assembling an album that stands shoulder to shoulder with their early work while acting its age at the same time. Norton Folgate is closer in tone to "Michael Caine" than "One Step Beyond," though that is not to suggest that the band is content to coast in second gear. "That Close" is a bouncy piano-driven tune akin to "The Sun and the Rain," and "Sugar and Spice" marries a minor-key (but catchy) melody to a rather serious tale of getting married too soon that acts as a sister song to "Embarrassment" and Squeeze’s "Up the Junction." Of the album’s many highlights, the finest moment is "On the Town," where singer Graham "Suggs" McPherson duets with former 2 Tone colleague Rhoda Dakar on the evil twin of "My Girl," where the guy loves the girl, but doesn’t realize that he’s pushing her away. (It also features a nifty sax break that will make fans of "Night Boat to Cairo" jump for joy.) Lastly, there is the title track, a ten-minute magnum opus with no less than six segments and features a mandolin, a tabla, and a Theremin and, amazingly, doesn’t collapse under the weight of its own pomposity. It’s huge, and a little ridiculous, but it works. Most ten-minute songs cannot make that claim.
There is a valuable lesson to be learned from The Liberty of Norton Folgate, and it is as follows: it is all right to wait until you have something to say before you say anything. Far too many bands release albums under the notion that they have to have some sort of "product" on the shelves every few years in order to maintain their relevance, only to watch those very albums do more damage to their legacy than silence would have. Madness, on the other hand, knows that they have absolutely nothing to prove to anyone, and therefore have all the time in the world to ponder their next move. The phrase ‘better late than never’ never sounded so sweet. Well played, lads.