We are London...
Released August 2009
2. We Are London
3. Sugar And Spice
4. Forever Young
5. Dust Devil
7. That Close
8. Mk II
9. On The Town
11. Idiot Child
14. Clerkenwell Polka
15. The Liberty Of Norton Folgate
This really was a remarkable and totally surprising album. After years drifting around, reuniting for summer festival appearances to run through their old "nutty" hits from the glory days of the late seventies/eighties, "national treasure" Madness returned with a type of "concept album" that proved to be possibly their best ever piece of work.
It is a delightful collection of songs loosely based around London and, in particular, the small area of Norton Folgate in North-East London, connecting Bishopsgate with Shoreditch. It is atmospheric, mature and deeply nostalgic. Madness were now middle-aged men and this is very much a comforting, thoughtful, middle-aged album. The great thing about Madness is they don't really feel they have to move with the times and experiment with dance music, hip-hop or whatever. They stick pretty much to their ska/accessible reggae/rock rhythms and clever, insightful, often witty lyrics.
"We Are London" is an infectious journey through the capital. "Down to Chinatown for duck and rice...". It is packed full of atmospheric lyrics, especially for anyone who has lived in or near London, or visited it regularly. The same applies to "NW5". "Sugar And Spice" is excellent too, with Squeeze-style down-home social observations - "you got a job in Marks & Spencers...". The Kinks are never far away in their influence, either. "Forever Young" has some intoxicating ska-style horns and keyboards and Suggs' nostalgic lyrics about ageing. I don't need to run through every single track, I am sure you have the picture now. Basically there is not a duff song on the album. Nostalgia, wry observational wit and great music is all over the album. Special mention has to be reserved, however, for the album's title track, its tour de force and a strong contender for Madness' best ever song. It is a ten-minute opus that listens like a Dickens novel, full of characters, images and overflowing with atmosphere. What a song. Kudos to them for it. Seriously.
Musically, it is impressive too. Madness' musical adeptness is often overlooked. Listen to the keyboard break on "Rainbows", or the melodious bass, or some of the orchestration. Great stuff. Madness master the three minute pop-ish song so well, both musically and lyrically. Check out "That Close" for a great example.
There is no stand-out, obvious "hit single" on this album. It doesn't need one. All the tracks are great. It is a beautifully-crafted piece of work. An impressive thing is that it never sounds like a band desperately trying to recapture their glory days. It sounds like a mature group affectionately looking back at those days, musically, and at society in general, through the city in which they live. As someone who used to live in London and now lives 350 miles from it and would not worry if I never went there again, it makes me feel nostalgic for the old place. I can't speak highly enough about this album. Highly recommended. Great cover too.