The Specials always displayed charisma and style, but who would have predicted that the legendary English ska revival veterans would possess such unshakeable longevity? After experiencing more than a few lineup changes and witnessing nearly all of their peers fall by the wayside, the punky reggae hipsters are weaving some of their most inspired tunes, four decades after their spirited debut. After a much-needed respite, The Specials are back with the aptly titled Encore, a rallying record that marries the unchecked idealism of youth with the inevitable lessons of hindsight.
Through every iteration of the band, social activism has always been at the forefront of their music, and Encore is no exception. Right off the bat, a rousing cover of “Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys” sets the stage for both the message and sound of the album, as a funky disco groove with a new wave flair attempts to use the power of music to tear down cultural barriers. From there, each of the pointed tracks touches on its own topical agenda, whether it be the disheartening reality of race relations (groovy spoken word mission statement ”B.L.M”), the hypocrisy of morally corrupt elected officials (retro, Caribbean-tinged political allegory ”Vote For Me”), or the rampant outbreak of gun violence (swaying island track ”Blam Blam Fever”). While the album clearly has a gospel to preach, it avoids the pitfall of heavy-handedness as it remains consistently steeped in sincerity.
The Specials can be set in their ways – sometimes to a fault, as evidenced by the questionable lyrics of weaker tracks like the theatrical and problematic ”Breaking Point” and the tone-deaf, get-off-my-lawn reluctance of shifting values and ideals in ”Embarrassed By You” – but they find relevance through the addition of new blood. On album standout ”10 Commandments,” an enraged and finely tuned feminist satire in the form of slam poetry, guest vocalist 21-year-old activist Saffiyah Khan gives the middle finger to misogynists, fairweather allies, and “pseudo-intellectuals on the internet.” It’s a welcome jolt of unfiltered electricity, a punk rock showcase with the potent immediacy of street-level picketing.
While the album is not without a dose of humor (as seen on the tongue in cheek mambo rendition of “The Lunatics”), Encore has no issue with brutal frankness. Frontman Terry Hall is as open and vulnerable as ever, discussing his abusive childhood and his subsequent struggles with mental illness on tracks like the sonically and tonally bold ”The Life and Times (Of a Man Called Depression),” a brassy and immersive number that mimics the effects of his own bipolar disorder. But the album doesn’t wallow in despair. We’re sent out into the world with the emotional ”We Sell Hope,” a silky smooth call to action: “Looked all around the world / Could be a beautiful place / We’ve got to take care of each other.”
The Specials have lost many key players over the years, both to death and retirement, but their unmistakable core remains the same. Their political edge hasn’t been softened any with age. In fact, it’s as outraged as ever. On Encore, The Specials feel as though they are just getting started. What’s more, we need their message of change just as much now as we did during the Margaret Thatcher years that sparked its demand.