I recall watching an interview with Madness frontman Suggs in 2009 as he discussed their 9th studio album (10th if you count The Madness), The Liberty of Norton Folgate. He remarked how if you had told him back in 1979 when they had their first hit single, 'The Prince', they would create a concept album 30 years later, he'd have laughed quite loudly in your face. He may have even uttered a coarse word or three. Fourteen years later, here is the second Madness concept album, Theatre of the Absurd present C'est La Vie.
This is quite a gamble as Norton Folgate was an excellent album, the favourite of some Madness devotees. It looked as if it might never happen. After a disparate couple of years, which saw the band at their most polarised and fragmented. You can't expect a group of friends to be together for over forty years without having the odd falling out, can you? The band reunited in an industrial unit in Cricklewood at the beginning of 2023, where they found that what unified them was always bigger than what divided them.
So, what is the concept behind this album? Norton Folgate looked at where they all grew up and spun various stories about their lives and the other residents around them, both past and present. C'est La Vie delves into aspects such as the pandemic, social justice, love and paranoia, all ensconced in an overriding theme of the purposelessness of life and presented as a theatrical production. The boys are getting older, and it feels as if there's a gentle prod at the meaning of life as an undercurrent.
The album weighs in at a smidge under 57 minutes and boasts twenty tracks, although six of these are short-spoken pieces which weave the fabric of the album together. For the first time, Madness have produced their own album, with support from engineer and mixer Matt Galsbey. Does this album make them out to be Yesterday's Men, or have they stayed Forever Young?
The album opens with the dulcet tones of the award-winning actor Martin Freeman (a fan of the band), who pops up to provide the spoken word inserts, welcoming 'Mr Beckett Sir…' as the opening of the prologue. This would seem to be a nod to Irish playwright Samuel Beckett and his famed work Waiting for Godot, a work that touches upon never fulfilling your supposed purpose in life.
'Theatre of the Absurd' kicks off the musical contribution and would not sound out of place on Sgt—Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles. "The actors stumble on with masks but no real plot", Suggs warbles, which seems to be focused on the recent coronavirus pandemic. Some believe the pandemic was a work of fiction. Some thought lockdown was an error of judgment that left everyone cast adrift, and others who feel those in charge were clueless. Many bought into everything that came along in the interest of public safety. This song could be interpreted in all ways, reflecting the band's differing views about this subject.
But what exactly is Theatre of the Absurd? They are usually performances that focus not on a traditional play format (character development, realistic storylines, etc.) but instead on human beings confined in an unfathomable world subject to any event, no matter how illogical. You can see how it fuses into their theme for this long player.
The thumping, driving drums from Daniel 'Woody' Woodgate, backed up with a lovely bassline from Mark' Bedders' Bedford, pummels you throughout 'If I Go Mad'. It is the sort of song you'll find yourself singing and dancing to when making some toast in the same way you might with 'Wings of a Dove'.
'Baby Burglar' brings the prologue to a close, looking at the life of a young person living outside of the law. It also poses an interesting question as Suggs asks, "Going equipped into the night/If I was to turn this weapon upon you, who would be wrong? Who would be right?". It sends my mind scuttling back to the story of Tony Martin in 1999. Chris' Chrissy Boy' Foreman is in fine form with his guitar here, which sounds a little like his efforts on the 1981 single, 'Shut Up'. It seems fitting as both songs point to criminality, though 'Baby Burglar' has a darker feel.
Mr. Freeman takes us to Act One and the album's title track. Suggs treats us to his finest French as he croons, "C'est La Vie - Je ne le fais pas, c'est la vie (I am not doing it, that's life)/C'est comme ça que, ça va être (Thats how it's going to be)". We will all die of something at some point, so why not let the virus do its thing instead of keeping us all locked up. It is a brutal viewpoint but one shared by many people throughout the pandemic, especially the longer it went on. The track has a real Madness vibe throughout – you'd spot it as one of theirs from 800 yards away.
When I heard 'What On Earth Is It (You Take Me For?)', I thought I was listening to Crunch! – the 1992 duo of Lee' Kix' Thompson and Chris Foreman (also erroneously known as The Nutty Boys). "Abigail and Brittney perform the truffle shuffle/They are having a go in all the kerfuffle/Now don't squirm in your chair/You are the sole director/So just pull the fucking plug out from its connector", Thompson spits out with a mix of venom and despair, sharing his thoughts on the utter garbage shared online passing as entertainment. Thompson's vocals bring this track to life; it is nicely aggressive as it grabs you by the gonads. He's not given the credit he deserves for his singing talents. This is a punked-up and funked-up Madness at your service.
'Hour Of Need' closes out Act One with its plucked violins akin to 'It Must Be Love'. Proclaiming the need we have for human contact, love, and support this was a challenge many felt during periods of pandemic-enforced separation. We all remember those pieces about people not being allowed into care homes or into hospital ICU wards to sit with their loved ones as they fought for their lives.
The short Act Two consists of 'Round We Go', a song that sounds very much like it was lifted from the band's Keep Moving period. Written by Woodgate, who penned the excellent 'Michael Caine' which was on that album, it is a splash of likeable pop. As the song ends, it develops into a forceful wall of sound.
On to Act Three (did you get a King Cone in the interval?). 'Lockdown and Frack Off' sees Suggs growling throughout, like a Doberman in need of a Hall's Soother. "Come on down, tonight's the night/Results are in, the price is right/Satisfy the common need, gratify a common greed", he gruffly pronounces. Some people did get rich from the pandemic – VIP Lane for PPE contracts, anyone? The production seems a little confused on this track and left me feeling a bit frustrated. I wasn't sure what it was trying to be.
'Beginners 101' comes and goes with little notice, with a nice bit of sax thrown in for good measure. 'Is There Anybody Out There?', continuing the greed concept with modern-day spivs selling you a loo roll for a fiver, also feels a little lost in the greater scheme of things. The third act is saved by Thompson and 'The Law According to Dr. Kippah'. Thompson exhibits his vocal abilities once more as his words rat-a-tat-tat at you throughout. Thankfully, Act Three is not the end of the story.
This performance comes complete with an epilogue, beginning with the excellent disco-funk of 'Run for Your Life'. With a slightly apocalyptic feel to it, Foreman tells a tale of people being kept scared and paranoid. It's a great way to control the masses, don't you know? Whilst this references coronavirus, it also looks further afield, such as reigniting the Cold War fear of the Russians after their invasion of Ukraine. Sadly, it also fits with the current issues in the Middle East.
Some people craved freedom during the periods of national lockdown, caged animals desperate to run wild. 'Set Me Free (Let Me Be)' sees someone crying out to be let loose from their concrete jail whilst arguing the efficacy of lockdown; "Been locked down in this same ghost town/I'm sure by now it's doing more harm than good". You can picture someone prowling around their home knowing that Tomorrow Is Just Another Day, just like the one before.
As the curtain is getting ready to fall, the final song, 'In My Street', sends us off into the night with a slice of vintage Madness. Containing a wonderful, jangly piano by Mike' Barso' Barson (think cockney pub knees-up), this begins to complete the circle with the album's opener. Suggs spotlights the locals who all talk about a better life but find reasons not to pursue it, choosing to stand still. Freeman closes out the album and sends us around again as he states this is just the end of the beginning.
Overall, this is a good album. It is the sort of LP you want to listen to a few times to get the feel of it. There are a few tracks that initially jump out at you and a few that slowly grow on you. The inclusion of Freeman's dialogue helps to bring a different dimension to the proceedings. For me, it doesn't reach the heights that Norton Folgate achieved. It was always going to be a tough target to hit. C'est La Vie employs a more restricted palate of subject matter, which has impacted the final product. Take a couple of tracks out of the running order, and you have a tighter album that would keep your attention from start to finish. As it stands, you get a breather before the grand finale.
This will be an album that will split opinion amongst the Madness fan base. For example, those who prefer their early work will likely enjoy a few tracks but not necessarily the whole album. Some will enjoy the concept nature of this album, whilst others might prefer a traditional album construction instead. We will wait and see whether it will attract new fans, but it offers a lot to the listener. The fact that Madness has been recording for over forty years but still wants to push their boundaries is a commendable trait. Waiting until album number thirteen to attempt self-production is to be applauded when it would have been easier to pass the responsibility onto someone else as per the norm.
This may well be the last-ever studio album by Madness. They have not intimated this, but they are not getting any younger. The Rolling Stones are still at it, so there may well be plenty more life in these nutty boys yet. They can still make great songs and continue to be a great live band. I believe there is at least one more album in Messrs. McPherson, Thompson, Barson, Bedford, Foreman and Woodgate based on this offering… but Don't Quote Me On That.