It's probably stretching a point to suggest that the current 2-Tone revival says as much about our present social corrosion as any learned sociological treatise; though certainly, the last time blue-eyed ska bands were this popular, the country was riven with inner-city riots and being bled dry by complete bankers. Sound familiar?
But while the gloss may have been taken off the Specials comeback by the non-involvement of Jerry Dammers, the return of Madness lacks no such lustre. After 2005's insipid Dangermen Sessions set of reggae covers, even the one-time nutty boys themselves accepted that, to all intents and purposes, the game was up.
Which just makes the success of The Liberty of Norton Folgate all the more extraordinary. A concept album about London town might seem no great surprise, but the aplomb and intelligence with which it's been executed may surprise those who have taken the band's "tasty geezers" image as their actual character. The album derives its title, and its 10-minute title-track suite, from a short stretch of Bishopsgate in east London which until 1900 was administered by the inhabitants rather than the surrounding boroughs, accordingly attracting a populace of rogues and artists.
For Madness, it clearly represents the essence of the freewheeling Cockney spirit sketched out in the album's 14 songs: as they claim in between the blizzard of namechecked locations in the opening "We Are London", anything is possible "if we all live together as one big family". And so it proves, across the capital, from the Kentish Town celebrated in typical jaunty good-time style in "NW5", to the Chelsea Mews equivalent of a bedsitter vignette retailed in "Mk II" (a Jag, rather than a Cortina). "Sugar and Spice" is especially well-wrought, a Squeeze-style short story of youthful romance, marriage, and inevitable disillusion set to piano and reedy organ: "Sugar and spice/ Everything was so nice/ Now it's just not the same/ It's bitterness and pain". Similar territory is covered in the haunting "That Close" and "On the Town", about a relationship past its snog-by date; while elsewhere "Idiot Child", "Rainbows" and "Forever Young" chart the progress of scallywag kids, the latter pithily summarising youth as "paradise lost and innocence gone".
Musically, it may be the band's most successful work, their ambition summarised both in the morphing movements of the title track, and in the way that the "Clerkenwell Polka" transforms from tuba-driven oompah band into a sort of double-time Balkan/ Dixieland knees-up, without straying too close to Chas and Dave country.
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