WITH the undented appeal of their curated festivals Madstock and the forthcoming House of Fun Weekender and a jukebox musical, Our House, to their name, Madness could just sit back and cash in.
There are seemingly unending reserves of nostalgic affection for their ska pop portraits of British street life and catalogue of slightly crumpled characters – especially since their status as national pop treasures was confirmed yet again over the summer with their appearance at the Olympics closing ceremony and their performance of “One’s House” on the roof of Buckingham Palace at the Jubilee Concert. Normally the Queen only lets Brian May up there.
But they have always made scattered efforts to freshen their enviable singles legacy and reconcile their reputation as the Nutty Boys with their encroaching middle age. A diversion as The Dangermen, reviving some of the old ska and reggae tunes which have always been their greatest inspiration was followed three years ago by a new album, The Liberty Of Norton Folgate, which was widely hailed as their most sophisticated celebration of their North London stomping ground to date.
This enthusiastically assertive follow-up, encased in a classy sleeve designed by Peter Blake, does not quite live up to those progressive standards. Oui, Oui, Si, Si, Ja, Ja, Da, Da actually begins with a retrospective reference in the shape of My Girl 2. Thirty years on, Suggs’s girl is not quite as mad with him as she was in the original song, but there are still rocky patches in an otherwise contented relationship. He smooths over the bumps with some uninspired rhyming couplets in celebration of his missus – “she don’t read books… she gives dirty looks” – and a Casio keyboard solo adds to the cheesiness of this jolly Northern Soul pastiche, which is likeable enough and undeniably hooky.
Next, Suggs catches himself wondering about what might have been as he recounts a one-time brief encounter in a club. Sonically, Never Knew Your Name comes across as an archetypal slice of Madness melancholia with some lovely disco strings production, but it is strictly superficial and even a bit sad-sack sappy in its exploration of the story. You missed your chance, mate, get over it.
The album shifts to cod-Latino mode for La Luna. Maybe it’s the mariachi setting or the beguiling chord changes contributing to the romantic backdrop but this convinces as a far more poetic and evocative portrait of regret, which recounts a heavy-hearted leave-taking.
The sax-inflected dub opening of How Can I Tell You erupts into an upbeat pep talk about the importance of the little things in relationships, be it with partners or children, but it’s all turned into a greetings card homily by the time Suggs is referring to “a pair of mittens and some cotton socks”.
Kitchen Floor is a sultry ska swing, the kind of thing Amy Winehouse could have really got her teeth into vocally. But you have to work with what you’ve got, so instead we get Suggs singing as Suggs does. They stick with the signature ska for Misery but this one is more of a soused knees-up in the vein of a closing-time rendition of Enjoy Yourself. Expect some nutty dancing in the crowd at gigs as they dispense more folksy wisdom, this time of the buck-up variety. Cheer up, mate, it might never happen.
Despite the unfavourable impression created by the likes of So Alive, a lumbering ska paean to lasting love, their lyrical prowess has not entirely deserted them. Leon is a more sophisticated portrait of the frustrated ambitions of an institutionalised soul longing for escape, which tips a nod to the Ray Davies school of impressionistic storytelling.
Small World is even more intriguingly ambiguous, painting an image of their home city the day after the party – or the Olympics, or the riots – as a jumping-off point for an appeal to personal responsibility and even a rallying message of social inclusivity.
They return to the personal portraits on closing track Death Of A Rude Boy, an eerie dub requiem – or as eerie as Madness get – in the vein of their peers The Specials, which pays tribute to the kind of respected figure whose passing can leave a void in the community. This was the first taster of their new material, which the band released the day after their Olympics performance. Musically, it set up expectations for the album which, it now transpires, are not met elsewhere but, overall, Oui, Oui… is a respectable addition to their catalogue and one to which loyal fans can comfortably say yes.
Oui, Oui, Si, Si, Ja, Ja, Da, Da
Lucky 7 Records, £12.99
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