Madness has proven itself a smart and snazzy band over the decades, even giving us a latter day classic via 2009’s Liberty of Norton Folgate. That most deft release was followed by 2012’s less exuberant but still fun Oui Si Ja Da Da,and then a four-year absence that ends with Can’t Touch Us Now. Arrivals of new collections such as this are excellent reminders that Madness can be an incredibly serious and thought-provoking band at times, and, equally, a reminder that, often, Madness has been at its best when it’s not trying too hard to be serious or thought-provoking.
There aren’t any woefully bad numbers in this 16-song set (which could have been trimmed to less Def Leppard-sized proportions to a more manageable 10 or even 12) but there aren’t really any songs that force the listener up from his or her chair and onto the dance floor of the mind. There are some cartoonish sound effects in the somewhat seductive romp “Grandslam”, a bit of audio drama tossed into the freewill vs. religion of “I Believe” and some lovely melodic maneuvers throughout. In fact, the plonking, plunking piano parts of the latter track casts the listener’s mind back to the halcyon days of the early ‘80s when the Madness lads were filled with wide-eyed dreams and even a dash or two of optimism. Unfortunately, there’s a dourness that prevails in “I Believe” and many of the others that occupy Can’t Touch Us Now, leaving the listener with a sense of musical ennui that never lifts, no matter how bouncy the beat.
“Mumbo Jumbo” comes close to giving us some levity but instead rests into an easy groove populated by armchair expert lyrics that attempt speaking truth to power but instead become stuck in the quagmire of cliché. It quickly feels stiff, forced and one step beneath the usual power that Madness wields. “Don’t Leave the Past Behind You” struts with a soulfulness that would feel celebratory if not stuck in a tempo that appears just a notch or two too subdued to make maximum impact. “(Don’t Let Them) Catch You Crying”, meanwhile, manages to strike an almost perfect balance between mood and meaning. The seductive sax work of old returns and the group seems, momentarily, to lift its head like an elderly cat to chance the toy mouse around the front room for a few minutes, reminding us that life is just a little slower, but not entirely over.
“Pam The Hawk” begs to be included in some sort of stage drama but its plodding tempo and glacially paced narrative wear the listener down before the one-minute mark. There’s an ace tune lurking in there somewhere, though it’s hard to find that tune behind the inappropriate dressings. That arrives as the back end of the LP where there’s still a treasure or two, including the would-be hit “Given The Opportunity”. The closing “Whistle in the Dark” overstates its Weill ways and “Soul Denying” suffers from having too many disparate ideas crammed into its narrow passageways.
To be fair, Madness doesn’t seem to have gone past its expiration date: This isn’t the work of a group that has nothing left to say but is, instead, evidence of a group unsure of what it should say. Should it plunge headlong into the frivolity of its youth once more? Or should it bemoan the injustices that age and a sometimes jaundiced world view demand that it sees as woefully wrong? If it could answer those questions, we might be onto a banger of a Madness record and less one that seems unequal to the British outfit’s reputation.
There are, no doubt, some bright days ahead for Madness, though when those days might arrive is difficult to predict. Let’s hope it’s soon because Can’t Touch Us Now shouldn’t be the final statement from an often mighty band.