Such is life, indeed. Madness is inevitable. They crop up on New Year’s Day to play in the bells. Lead man Suggs pops around to Would I Lie To You for some cheery appearances. Gone are the days of their challenging and ska-based tomfoolery which would bring out the best in a counterculture now consumed and coughed up by the very spirit-crushing system which had birthed the genre. But Madness are now as compact and readily made as those who listen to their music, the people who brought out the most basic and primitive directions of the genre and use it for their Sainsbury’s adverts and mid-week meal-prep playlist. C’est La Vie, as they say. Whether this new work from Madness lands with those Our House listeners is yet to be seen.
Whining orchestrals brings about first track Theatre of the Absurd – presenting London town with all the coughed-up hackney accent. Suggs notes “no real plot,” of the actors on stage yet no way of getting out. His and the rest of Madness’ decision to structure this in acts is a fascinating change of pace for a band who have stuck to their guns with how their albums are structured. It works well enough to warrant the wider changes made on C’est La Vie, an album which features theatrics as much as it can as though it were not confident enough of the material cementing it. Whether this is the “last known performance” and a farewell to Madness is yet to be seen, but what a way to bow out if it is. Speculation and nothing more, but the band would be hard-pressed to bring out anything better than this so late in the game.
Whether C’est La Vie has the legs to last its hour-long length is up to those hardened fans who hope for unchanging, steady trickles of tunes. A sickly and twee state of affairs soon follows and knocks the wind out of Madness’ sails. Surrounded on All Sides does little to cement the confidence in this act structure. Title track C’est La Vie is at least a timely bit of doom for the nine to five experiences, but Madness cannot shake their beloved Brit status which has so far hindered them as the Carry On film equivalent of British music. Their act structure runs out of steam halfway through, the one track from its centre point, meant to be the climax, brings the middle-of-the-road track Round We Go.
Breakup on the cards but staggering through over half a decade on from their previous album, Madness prove they are still more than Hardwick Live fodder. Lockdown and Frack Off is more a Madness attempted to stay relevant and up to date with the rumblings of politics. They forget they were once, like UB40, the cornerstone of a counterculture. Life comes at you fast when you’re lapping up the establishment, which Madness cannot shake off on Theatre of the Absurd. As cured and safe as can be, even their artistic changes of pace and criticisms of the powers that be fall flat. Toothless tries as the off-kilter titles of their songs match up with the vapid and inconsistent lyrics. This is not the theatre of the absurd, it is the showcase of the dullards.