Madness

Can't Touch Us Now

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Madness first rose to fame as the biggest stars of the U.K. ska revival, but with time their approach evolved into a very British mixture of pop, rock, and R&B, and the shift suited their lyrical approach. At their best, Madness always had a keen but loving appreciation of the foibles of British life, like a more playful version of Village Green Preservation Society-era Ray Davies, and the consistency and strength of their songwriting was as much a part of their success as their purposefully goofy showmanship. In 2016, Madness are still a going concern after several breakups and reunions, and if Can't Touch Us Now isn't up to the level of their triumph, 1982's Madness Presents the Rise & Fall, it shows they've found a way to mature without abandoning their playful side, and it features some of their strongest songwriting in years. With "You Are My Everything" and the title track, Madness reveal they've learned to deliver a convincing love song without sounding stiff or self-conscious. Elsewhere, "Mr. Apples" is a sly portrait of a small-town authority figure with some skeletons in his closet, "Good Times" and "Another Version of Me" are bittersweet tales of the victories and defeats of ordinary life, and "Mumbo Jumbo" melds social commentary with a goofy groove that can make you dance. And "Herbert" is truly one of the best songs Ian Dury never found the time to write; it's a loving tribute to the band's former labelmate and fellow British institution. Madness don't kick up as much dust in 2016 as they did in the '80s, but the melodies are strong and the performances are excellent. The honking sax and up-front piano work are clear ties to the band's golden era, but this music sounds fresh, smart, and confident, clearly the work of Madness but not a bland replay of their past. Madness' willingness to act "nutty" for their fans often disguised how intelligent and tuneful they could be; on Can't Touch Us Now, the smarts and the songwriting are closer to the forefront, and it's a fine showcase of what they still do well.

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