Studio album number ten for Madness is a bit different from their last offering, The Liberty of Norton Folgate; less conceptual and high falutin’, more of a Madness album. Back in their early ’80s heyday, when the Nutty boys rules the airwaves, Madness were never an album band. The long players were mere vessels for the singles, with a few fillers stuck in for good measure. Madness were all about the continuous stream of top ten hits. After proving that they could, after all, step put of themselves to create something unexpected, it falls on them to know prove that they can actually still do the simple stuff. You know, write a hit song, like they used to. Once upon a time, they were a fixture in the upper echelons of chartdom, so much so that they may have been taken for granted, until the original line up imploded and dross like ‘Uncle Sam’ proved that maybe it wasn’t as easy at it all seemed.
On Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da they’ve disseminated their own history, and reduced it to component parts, then reconstructed those parts into a thoroughly modern Madness hoot, that frankly sounds like everything Madness have done previously, in the best possible sense. While there’s no ‘Baggy Trousers’-like anthem, you wouldn’t expect there to be. They’re a bit long in the tooth for that, now, and frankly, so are we.
It might be cruel, it may even be wrong, to suggest that their best days are behind them, but it’s something the band themselves are willing to exploit, calling the opening song on this record ‘My Girl 2’, a hark back to the hit of three decades ago. It suggests of course that in those 30 years Suggs still hasn’t managed to learn how to communicate with the fairer sex. He’ll just try and placate with an eel pie and shuffle out the door like a pensioner with lumbago, trilby covering his eyes, in that way of his. Of course, feel free to point out that Suggs didn’t write ‘My Girl’. Ruin this for everyone, why don’t you. As it happens the tune bares no relation to the original, sounding more like a jaunty Petula Clarke number, or a de-sexed Fine Young Cannibals.
‘Never Knew Your Name’ sounds like late era Madness, the first time around that is. A left over single from 1987 we don’t remember. They’ve always had a penchant for the mickey take in their music. It used to be musichall and vaudeville, and on ‘La Luna’, they go all Mariachi band honking away insistently in the corner of a tequila bar in Marbella. On ‘Kitchen Floor’, Suggs is saucily suggestive. “Do it on the kitchen floor”, he says. It’s disconcerting, like a dub Tindersticks, except without all the self hate. Madness are like Tindersticks in away, recounting ordinary encounters in a banal world, one of suburban highstreets and chips, except that with Madness there’s a joy in these things. The next track, ‘Misery’, is an unfortunate number, sounding like a wedding band trying to get the olds up for a shuffle: filler, basically.
‘Leon’, ‘Circus Freaks’ and ‘So Alive’ comprise a solid centre, stomping ska-pop numbers, lumbered with horns and an easy charm, in the classic vein. As the album enters its third act, it starts to get more interesting. ‘Small World’ carries a certain menace in its languid bassline while ‘Death of A Rudeboy’, the record’s first single, follows on with the sense of minor dread. A marvellous sinister chord shift is countered by babbling horns, reminiscent of their old muckers The Specials, except that for Suggs it sounds as nary a year has passed since his heyday.
‘Powder Blue’ is a ballady number, recounting that feeling you have at the end of a party as the sun is coming up and you’ve smoked all your fags. They’ve gone for strings over horns here, and it works. The album should end right here, as the last two numbers seem superfluous. If there’s a market for a band that does Madness music, then it stands to reason we let Madness fill it. It’s not really a case of ‘know your limitations’ because they’re not really limited by it, being, as they are, so bloody good at being Madness. When they hit form on this disc, it really works. Only occasionally does it come across as some kind of somnambulism.