The Liberty of Norton Folgate (2009)

The Liberty of Norton Folgate

Produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley

Available as standard CD or (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!) deluxe box set

Lucky Seven Records
Yep Roc Records (U.S. edition)

Now that I've completed my fortieth year on this planet, I officially qualify as a cranky old coot who's stuck in the past. Mass-market popular culture is generally a mystery to me these days, though in no category do I feel more like a carbon-dated relic than in contemporary music. As a wise man once observed, today's music ain't got the same soul, I like that old-time rock and roll, and American Idol and the shit on the radio sure doesn't speak to me.

It's a rare cause for celebration when I discover a new artist that I can stand listening to, so most of my new music purchases are relegated to what would commonly be labeled as '80s acts. When you're dealing with the modern output of old warhorses, it's understandable and even expected that they may past their prime and treading water a bit. Sometimes the gray-beard geezer can surprise us by knocking one out of the park, but even those strong showings rarely measure up to the classics. Paul Weller's 22 Dreams from 2008 is great, but it's definitely no All Mod Cons or Wild Wood. No Line on the Horizon is swell, but no one's going to confuse it with The Joshua Tree.

Madness So here we have The Liberty of Norton Folgate, the first album of original compositions by Madness in ten years. Following the band's 1986 breakup and 1992 Madstock reunion, their Wonderful album was good. Their Dangermen covers project was good. The Liberty of Norton Folgate is more than that. This is a damn legitimate masterpiece that will take its equal place alongside One Step Beyond and The Rise and Fall. What we have here is entirely different from Paul McCartney's Wings or Lynyrd Skynyrd after the plane crash. In the case of Madness, we're fortunate to still have all the original band members together, but more importantly than that, they've still got it together.

The band took a long and leisurely three years to assemble The Liberty of Norton Folgate, unpressured by business deadlines or record executives. After distasteful experiences with two major labels on their past two albums, the band formed their own Lucky Seven imprint and have been determined to do things their way, which the evidence suggests was clearly the right way.

As a side effect of the prolonged gestational process, we fans have traveled a circuitous route to reach this album ourselves. "NW5" was released as a single over a year in advance, and the band previewed the new album live at London's Hackney Empire theatre in the summer of 2008. Souvenir wristband recordings of these gigs went down a storm among the fan base. Then we got an almost-complete digital download version of the album with our preorders for the deluxe edition set, whose release was delayed by the bankruptcy of the marketing firm handling the orders. So we've had plenty of sneak peeks before finally getting our hands on the finished product, and this has proved both a blessing and a curse. Many of us complained that the studio recordings weren't as good as the superb live Hackney shows, and I myself charged several of the tracks with sounding stiff and, I believe, "constipated" in comparison to the empassioned renditions on stage. But now that my ears have adjusted to the retail release, I see there's nothing wrong with it at all. Your first exposure to great music leaves a deep impression, and this is simply a case where the live gigs drilled themselves into our skulls before the record could. There's honestly no need for sonic laxatives here.

But on to the album itself... when I first saw on the Madness Wikipedia page (with a huge dose of skepticism) that their forthcoming LP was provisionally entitled The Liberty of Norton Folgate, that mouthful of a title evoked images in my head. I imagined a nutty-style rock opera about a London reprobate released into freedom after serving his time in the slammer, setting out to rebuild his life. While the Lee Thompson-penned "Idiot Child," "Bingo" and "NW5" could well have served as acts in such a drama, it turns out that Norton Folgate isn't a person. It's a place. For centuries Norton Folgate was a small district of east London, actually an independent legal entity or "liberty" with its own laws and parliament, where immigrants, misfits, artists and radicals made their home outside the mainstream of the city. Vocalist Suggs was delighted to learn of this obscure urban nook in his historical readings and thought it would make perfect material for a Madness song. With alarming synchronicty, a London preservation society is currently working to spare the last historic remnants of the Norton Folgate area from being torn down for commercial development, and here was Madness putting out a new album championing the place though neither organization had any knowledge of the other's doings.

"The Liberty of Norton Folgate," the song, is a big, crazy, sweeping patchwork of obscure historical references and vaudevillian music hall stylings, mixing the founding of ancient London together with a tour of a modern-day street market. It's a thoroughly successful exploration of the concept of psychogeography, popularized by authors like Peter Ackroyd and Alan Moore, that places have particular metaphysical identities that penetrate through their histories and bear profound influence on those who live there. Suggs is attempting lyrically to capture the essence that binds all Londoners past and present together. "In the Liberty of Norton Folgate, walking wild and free," he sings, "in your secondhand coat happy just to float in this little taste of liberty, cos you're a part of everything you see."

The titular epic fittingly closes the album, and an orchestral summation of its key movements opens it as a theatrical overture. The strings and brass instrumental was also the way the Hackney shows brought up the curtain, and it lends a Sgt. Pepper's sense of event to hear the stage set the same way on the record. It's a beautiful instrumental composition that has to be one of the best orchestral arrangements ever to arise from a pop band. The overture leads directly into "We Are London," the album's other predominant tribute to the city on the Thames. Carl Smyth's lyrics portray the cosmopolitan diversity of a place whose citizens can choose to "make it your own hell or heaven." This song should seriously be in contention to be the theme for the 2012 Olympics.

The album eases into familiar Madness territory with Mike Barson's "Sugar and Spice" (a song of lost love that some have criticized for being sappy and twee; apparently they missed the lines about the relationship painfully falling to pieces) and Suggs' "Forever Young" (a good old reggae thump about the dangers of growing cynical in one's old age). Then we have "Dust Devil," a rollicking tune I correctly had pegged as the album's release single. It's pure Lee Thompson burlesque, with its title referring to the battery-powered device that a vivacious young lady keeps under her pillow.

Next is my personal favorite track on the album, a simple Madness gem entitled "Rainbows." The Thompson/Woodgate lyrics touchingly describe the experience of birth from the point of view of a supernaturally articulate baby, but I like to think the message has wider application for anyone, child or adult, setting out on a new unexplored course in life: "I've got nothing to lose, I've got nothing to gain. Just like where I'm coming from, there's only one place to go, there's only one place to aim." The song was reportedly recording on a bare-bones eight-track studio unit in the earliest recording sessions, and any fancier overdubs would only diminish its perfection. "That Close" is apparently autobiographical ditty on the band's ups and downs over the years, with nostalgia blending into recognition of the difficulties that go into building lasting friendships.

"Mk II" is a noirish vignette about a gangster, his Jaguar, his mistress and some dark dealings mostly left to our imagination. Suggs supplied the lyrics to a piano melody Smyth had previously written as part of an unfinished solo project. The song has such a powerful chorus that it's disappointed that it only comes once before "Mk II" ends, but its unexpected brevity is a big part of the song's character. "On the Town" is another Barson breakup song, distinguished by 2-Tone stalwart Rhoda Dakar lending her vocals in a duet with Suggs. Some fans prefer the download version with Amber Jolene on vocals, but I have to go with Rhoda for her earthier tone as well as her age appropriateness for her singing partner (with Amber being not much older than Suggsy's daughters).

The definite Madness songwriting tandem of Thompson and Barson brings us the next two selections. "Bingo" is a cautionary tale of an unpleasant encounter outside Camden Town tube station, while "Idiot Child" reflects on Thompson's experiences as a juvenile delinquent "always ending up in jail, always destined to fail." "Africa" is probably the big surprise of the album, once the listener has gotten over the idea of a ten-minute Madness song, anyway. I was expecting a Mike Barson instrumental, or maybe a mock-heroic invocation of British imperialism along the lines of "Night Boat to Cairo" and "New Delhi." But it's a sweet, beautiful, delicate work of wistful calm. The title functions exactly as Brazil did for the Terry Gilliam film, as a symbol of fanciful escape for a protagonist trapped in an urban landscape of work and tedium. That's how a song called "Africa" thematically fits in with an album about London.

"NW5," already canonized as a Madness classic, is Lee Thompson's heartbreaking declaration that a toxic friendship has been severed, disguised as an effervescently catchy pop song. "Clerkenwell Polka" is Carl Smyth's cleverly phrased conjuring of London's radical socialist movements and their busy propaganda presses, which may bear some resemblance to the political scene of today. And this leads into the magnum opus title track that brings The Liberty of Norton Folgate to a rousingly satisfying conclusion.

The Liberty of Norton Folgate Box Set At least, that's where things end for the standard CD release. As previously mentioned, there's also a "luxurious" box set edition that includes two bonus CDs, a vinyl LP and some collectible goodies encased in a handsome faux-hardback book package. One of the supplemental discs contains demos and practice sessions plus a cleaned-up mix of the Hackney preview shows (though I actually prefer the muddier ambiance of the USB wristbands -- again, it's the attachment to what one's ears have first fallen in love with).

The real treasure of the big box set that makes it worth every pence of the £40 asking price is other CD of studio outtakes. This is no scrapheap of subpar B-side fodder, my friends -- it's all stunningly great. The band recorded enough top-notch material to have made the general release of The Liberty of Norton Folgate a double album of 20-plus solid tracks, limited only by the capacity of an 80-minute CD. My pick of the bunch is "Seven Dials," which sounds utterly like it was unearthed from a time capsule sealed away in the Madness heyday of 1983. But "Hunchback of Torriano," "Mission from Hell" and "One Fine Day" all pretty much fall into that category as well. Then you've got an autobiographical belter on the band's early days in "Let's Go," and Chas Smash crooning a bunch of Cockney rhyming slang on "Fish & Chips." What a feast of choice delicacies these "castoffs" be. It's as if the 15 tracks on the standard CD were chosen by random lottery rather than aesthetic value. In the immortal words of Mr. Creosote, I'll 'ave the lot.

So thank you, Madness, thank you one and all for this marvelous enchanted gift of music and joy. You've put a spring in an old man's step and brought a misty tear to his eye, happy just to float in this little taste of liberty.