When Madness were growing up in north London, Camden Palace was a somewhat forlorn reminder of London’s once grand music halls, those proletariat venues that combined music, social commentary, satire and broad comedy. By the 1970s, Camden Palace was a live music venue – Suggs and Lee Thompson used to see shows by breaking in through the dome at the top of the building – but that original spirit of London music hall has always been present in the carnivalesque, slapstick, oversized songs of Madness, a debt made clear on their new record. Fittingly, Theatre Of The Absurd Presents C’Est La Vie will receive its live premiere at the Camden Palace – now known as Koko.
The desolate air of an empty music hall reflects another aspect of the Madness universe. There has always been a lot of melancholy in their music – although Suggs prefers to call it pathos – and these two elements, music hall and melancholy, combine to form a semi-concept album that, structurally, mirrors a Victorian melodrama. Between 14 songs, Martin Freeman delivers short snippets of spoken word – “Prologue”, “Act One” etc – to provide a sense of theatrical progression. It starts with Freeman referencing “Mr Beckett”, before Suggs takes over for his opening song, “Theatre Of The Absurd”, about the “cruellest comedy” in which “actors stumble on with masks but no real plot”.
The fusion of music hall and Samuel Beckett – Waiting For (Fred) Karno? – is the thread that holds together an album rife with unease and anxiety and occasionally feverish tomfoolery, a reflection of the fact many of the songs were written during lockdown. It was recorded in a lock-up in Cricklewood, originally a rehearsal space where they developed the material into a coherent album and then converted it into a studio.
Although the songs are written from multiple perspectives, they share a common mood – essentially life and its general absurdity. Some are intensely personal, such as Mike Barson’s “Hour Of Need”, which could be about insomnia, death or just general despair, or the more celebratory “In My Street”, on which Suggs lists some of the characters you can find in his neighbourhood – “a boxer, footballer, black cab driver, a gangster, a fraudster, a cheating conniver” like an updated “Our House” – although the musical reference to “Grey Day” hints at the darker undercurrent.
That’s a very London song, as one would expect from a band that have always embraced their native city. In many ways, Theatre Of The Absurd… resembles 2009’s The Liberty Of Norton Folgate and the capital is never far from the surface, whether it’s the reference to “some dark theatre in London” on “Theatre Of Absurd” or the mention of Hampstead Heath, Highgate Road and Highbury on Barson and Lee Thompson’s synth-pop epic “The Law According To Dr Kippah”. There’s deadpan humour too, of course. On Chris Foreman’s “Lockdown And Frack Off”, Suggs has a little chuckle at the line, “curtain twitch, get ready to snitch” as he recalls the lunacy of lockdown. Later, Foreman offers a double bill of “Run For Your Life” and “Set Me Free (Let Me Be)”, again digging into a sense of collective insanity and taking on all sides willy-nilly.
Musically, the most distinctive Madness traits are all present. “Lockdown And Frack Off” begins with a spidery sinister vibe that soon gives way to a steady skank, while Barson’s “C’est La Vie” has a classic Lee Thompson sax and ska-based rhythm, with hint of steel drums in the percussion. Suggs’s “If I Go Mad” has splendid Hammond from Barson, with a Suggs rap and relentless staccato rhythm from Dan “Woody” Woodgate. “Round We Go”, written by Woody, is sunny pop with a prominent piano and great Suggs lead vocal that would fit neatly on to 1980’s Absolutely. Comedy sound effects are present and correct, most notably on “If I Go Mad”, one of many Madness songs about sanity, where a member of the gang does a bad impression of a train. The woozy “What On Earth Is It (You Take Me For)?”, by Thompson and Chris Foreman, allows Thompson to deliver languid lead vocals.
The six members of the band are supported by backing singers, strings and a barking dog, and there are other musical innovations, such as the Grandmaster Flash references on the paranoid “What On Earth Is it (You Take Me For?)”, and the nods to Curtis Mayfield on apocalyptic stomper “Run For Your Life”. But the biggest spiritual influence is The Kinks, another band adept at exploring London’s darker undercurrents. On Theatre Of The Absurd…, Madness gleefully peer through the net curtains of life, revealing the moth-eaten carpets and peeling wallpaper obscured by the elaborate facades we all hide behind.