(UMC, out Fri 1 Feb 2019)
When an iconic band return with new material (after, in this case, anything between 18 years and 38 years depending on which line-up you think counts, and presuming you think this slimmed down one does) your first hope is they haven’t just shat all over their legacy. Your second is that they might have something fresh to offer. With Encore, the Specials clear both hurdles. Their legacy remains faeces free, and within the limits of a short album (an old-fashioned ten tracks!) they serve up a smattering of new ideas. This Encore is, at least, justified.
They get their surprises in early. A cover of the Equals‘ Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys sees them preach their familiar Two Tone message of racial unity over an unfamiliar (for them) disco workout – “People won’t be black and white / the world will be half-breed”. B.L.M. then takes the same riff and douses it in funk. Both will have your ageing joints back on the dancefloor, though throwing some new shapes to supplement the skanking.
Elsewhere there’s more characteristic fare. Single Vote For Me will be familiar by now and hits all the right touchpoints – politically-charged rocksteady in a minor key, with organ and trombone flourishes. No fan should feel let down. Breaking Point adds some Balkan flavour to the basic mix while voicing the thoughts of millions of mid-lifers and millennials alike: “I’m here at breaking point / mind and body tired / those plans for happiness / have all expired”. There’s no full on ska stompers – the cover of Blam Blam Fever, a dissection of gun culture, is as uptempo as it gets in that regard. You still can’t escape the Specials-ness of it all though.
To save further on the new writing, they’ve even revisited the The Lunatics (Have Taken Over The Asylum), presumably because, given who’s running things these days, it applies even more now than it did then. The update of the old Fun Boy Three number works, making you wonder why it’s been off our collective playlists for so long.
Of course, this being The Specials, the social awareness is strong. They used to be leaders in that department; they feel more like followers now – co-opting the zeitgeist rather than defining it. They also tend to the trite rather than the profound. Lynval Golding’s spoken word biography on B.L.M. is a story well worth hearing – a Windrush father, a “black bastard” barracking on his first day of school in Gloucester – but its conclusion that “Black Lives Matter” reduces engaging personal testimony to hashtag activism. Similarly, activist Saffiyah Khan‘s turn on 10 Commandments (a feminist riposte to Prince Buster’s original) sticks two fingers up at being labelled a “feminazi” and proclaims “thou shalt not tell a girl she deserved it because her skirt was too short” – all worthy points, of course, but well-worn lines to anyone who’s been near social media in the past half decade. Essentially it’s any of a thousand Twitter threads set to a dubby jam.
By contrast, Hall’s spoken word effort, The Life And Times (Of A Man Called Depression), is a little less lyrically obvious. It too has the loose air of improvisation, the band backing Hall’s sadsack monologue with a persistent groove, decorated in places with Riders on the Storm organ and Take Five flute. We Sell Hope closes the album fittingly with a positive message – “We’ve got to take care of each other” – set to a gloomy, descending chord progression. It’s their way.
Had they been smarter with the messaging and/or bulked out the jams and spoken word numbers with a banger or two, they’d be in the vicinity of a great album here. As it stands, it’s just a little slight, a pork pie (hat) short of a ska feast. Even then, Encore is a comeback well made and bodes well for anyone with Barrowlands tickets for May.