sun 14/07/2024

CD: The Specials - Encore | reviews, news & interviews

CD: The Specials - Encore

CD: The Specials - Encore

Neither awful, nor amazing, the ska icons' long-awaited comeback has its moments

Grey but not faded

The Specials were era-defining, making this a hugely anticipated album for many. On paper they’ve released a bunch of albums since the Eighties but their discography is misleading. Encore is their first major work in decades.

It’s a big ask for it to match their iconic status, akin to when The Stooges and Kraftwerk reappeared with new music decades after their legendary prime. It succeeds in places but does not – and, of course, never could – match the impact of their early work.

On their first two albums The Specials brilliantly embodied the unfettered possibility of a vital and uniquely imagined post-punk ska until, following epochal single “Ghost Town” in 1981, singer Terry Hall left. Aside from the ebullient single “Free Nelson Mandela”, bandleader Jerry Dammers wandered off into haunted jazz for the intriguing but miscalculated In The Studio in 1984, then he quit too. From there a series of underpowered albums were released by various Hall/Dammers-free line-ups, mostly of cover versions, until their mighty repute drizzled away.

Reforming with every original member but Dammers in 2008, they’ve become a touring powerhouse and, although only Terry Hall, vocalist/guitarist Lynval Golding and bassist Horace Panter are now left, their album occasionally flickers with the spirit that once rendered them great. The politically engaged lyrics veer between the trite and the pithily urgent. For example, the burlesque Cabaret oompah stomp of “Breaking Point” one moment clangingly opines that “social media is a trend that will send us all round the bend” but later nails a righteous verse starting “There goes another border/Here comes a new world order.”

Oddly, Encore opens underwhelmingly with a couple of pleasant but inessential funk numbers that sound nothing like The Specials. This would be fine, but for the fact that they’re not characterful enough to comprise a fresh statement of intent. “Vote For Me” follows and is a richly pleasing pastiche of “Ghost Town” via Madness’s “Night Boat to Cairo”, overlaid with Hall’s punchy lyrics. That three of Encore’s songs comprise spoken word over jammed grooves says something about the musical creativity involved. That the best of these is by activist and model Saffiyah Khan says something else.

But it’s still a generally likeable album. The dub-funk cover of Fun Boy Three’s “The Lunatics (Have Taken Over the Asylum)” may be lazy but it’s also timely and, more to the point, sounds good. “The Life and Times (of a Man Called Depression)” has a chorus that won’t quit, and the final “We Sell Hope” exudes Hall’s talent for charmed melancholy. By the album's end there’s not that sense of a great band scrabbling for any semblance of a vibe or tune, as there was on, say, The Stooges’ 2007 comeback The Weirdness.

However, there is a ghost at the party; the musically rigorous Dammers. His Spatial AKA Orchestra is a wildly adventurous project, and it’s hard not to reckon that with his involvement Encore would have been a more exciting creature, As it is, the new Specials’ album is less frenetic than their extraordinary 2 Tone output, sometimes broodier, sometimes overly obvious, but still crafted, festival-friendly and often enjoyable.

Below: Watch the video for "Vote For Me" by The Specials
The politically engaged lyrics veer between the trite and the pithily urgent


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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