I don’t know about you, but when I hear that one of my all time favourite bands is releasing an album of new material well over 30 years after their heyday, my heart sinks a little. Part of me is excited, of course, but mostly I’m fearful of them destroying their own perfect legacy. I say this as a huge fan of Pixies, having been one of the few people who actually liked both Indie Cindy and Head Carrier. But do those two albums bear even the remotest comparison with the golden years of the late eighties classics? Hell no. Anyone who argues that they do is clearly clinically insane. But Encore, the third album by The Specials (if we’re not including Special AKA’s In The Studio) holds up well against their previous releases. REALLY well, in fact. It didn’t make my heart sink; it made my heart SING.
It’s a brave band indeed that covers a classic 1970 song by The Equals as their opening gambit, especially as it’s hard to see how anyone could possibly improve on the original. But The Specials have always had a knack of making things their own, and the great news is they’ve lost none of their chutzpah in that respect, so ‘Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys‘ is treated to an Isaac Hayes ‘Shaft‘ like makeover, and given a spectacular new lease of life as a result.
Following this is a musical autobiography from Lynval Golding, one of three spoken word pieces, which kind of form the socio-political centrepiece of Encore. First it’s ‘B.L.M.’ which, over a backdrop that recalls Stevie Wonder‘s ‘Superstition‘, shows us that, for all the strides we think we’ve made in terms of combatting and eliminating racism from society, there is still a very real problem that prevails today.
Later on, Saffiyah Khan, famous for her activism in standing up, as a teenager, against far right group the EDL, narrates ‘10 Commandments‘, lambasting her detractors and railing against the all too common injustices suffered by women in this country and around the world on a daily basis. “You may call me a femi-nazi, a femoid, and see if I give a stinking shit” she says, in a hard hitting monologue that demands even the most lethargic of listeners sit up and take heed.
The third in this trilogy, ‘The Life And Times (Of A Man Called Depression)‘, is delineated by frontman Terry Hall, no stranger to the black dog himself over the years, by his own admission. These poetic pieces are intensely personal and give us a fascinating insight into the world inhabited by each commentator: “He stands accused of being socially inept, some say rude, aloof, devoid of any real truth. He lives in a world of self doubt, self pity, self loathing, self harm.”
Much of Encore is an absolute blast, however, with ‘Embarrassed By You‘ skating the closest to the sound of ska that made their eponymous debut so irresistible, while recent single ‘Vote For Me‘ managed to successfully weld together the ideas behind ‘Ghost Town‘ and ‘What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend‘.
The Funboy 3‘s ‘The Lunatics (Have Taken Over The Asylum)‘ is revived here too, perhaps aptly in the present political climate, minus parentheses and adorned with a classical piano introduction, while ‘Breaking Point‘ sits somewhere between ‘Waltz Into Mischief‘ by Madness and The Doors‘ version of ‘Alabama Song‘.
Perhaps best of all are the band’s faithful rendition of ‘Gun Fever‘ by The Valentines (listed here as ‘Blam Blam Fever‘, with some lyrical alterations to fit with recent times) and the yearnful optimism of the gorgeous curtain closer ‘We Sell Hope‘, with its refrain of “looked around the world, could be a beautiful place to live in.”
And it could. It still could. One thing’s for sure though – everything seems so much better when The Specials are in it. This is an outstanding return, and instantly becomes my favourite record of 2019 to date.
Encore is out now on UMC.