ALBUM REVIEW by Victor Stranges
Who would have thought that UK ska revival band The Specials could exude such greatness forty years after their debut self-titled album? 2019’s “Encore” was put together by a somewhat reduced lineup with Jerry Dammers, Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers, and Neville Staple parting ways since their 2009 reunion.
Their drummer, John Bradbury died in 2015 and so it was left up to Terry Hall, Lynval Golding, Horace Panter, and a number of special guests to pick up the musical pieces.
It would be The Specials’ first new material with vocalist Terry Hall since their 1981 single, "Ghost Town." What we get is a fusion of ska/reggae, funk, traces of Cuban jazz, disco, and spoken word. The fast and furious ska/punk leanings of their earlier work are not as openly expressed, and what we hear lyrically are highly topical subjects of a Brexit-divided Britain, racism, poverty, political oppression, mental health, and misogyny.
A rendition of The Equals’ “Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys” sets the tone for the album of laying down the weapons of racism. Though arguably simplistic lyrically, the sentiment is hopeful and hypnotic, utilizing a groovy 1977 disco sound with 1977 disco strings to match. The production is tastefully dry and compact, with guitar noodling carefully weaving its way along a road traveled by its funky rhythm section.
Virtue signaling and political sloganeering in music are a real turn-off for this reviewer but what is refreshing in the lyrical direction is the humanity and personal experience that rings true in the myriad of grievances presented. None are starker than the song “B.L.M.” which is an account of Lynval Golding testifying of his migrant experience after he and his father arrived in the UK to help rebuild the nation after the war.
One of the standout tracks is “Vote For Me” which has a striking familiarity with “Ghost Town.” Its dark overtones and disdain for the political class are underpinned by a kooky horn section, strange key changes, and a generally uneasy nature punctuated with tasteful piano and a beautifully understated rhythm.
You're all so drunk on money and power inside your Ivory tower
Teaching us not to be smart, making laws that serve to protect you
But we will never forget that you tore our families apart.
- Vote For Me
“The Lunatics (Have Taken Over The Asylum)” first appeared as a single in 1981 by Fun Boy Three, who were a side project that developed as The Specials were splitting up. The African-influenced rhythm of the original is transformed into a reggae tango. The monotonous drone chorus is infectious as it ever was. “Breaking Point” sounds like Tom Waits’ musicians from Swordfishtrombones had secretly recorded an alternate version of Waits’ “Underground.”
“Blam Blam Fever” is an update of the 1967 Valentines single about gun culture and gun violence. Pointing the finger at the second amendment from the US constitution, Hall exclaims “we think it is obscene you can buy AR-15.”
The Specials always knew how to adapt ska classics and a surprising version of Prince Buster’s “Ten Commandments Of Man” has been repurposed and turned on its head. Gone is the lyrical sexist humour of its day, replaced with a new version proclaiming “The 10 Commandments of I, Saffiyah Khan.” Khan at the time was a 21-year-old observer at a rally and was photographed standing up to an angry English Defence League protester in Birmingham. The photo went viral and Khan was sporting a Specials T-shirt.
Pseudo-intellectuals on the internet
They tell me I'm unhappy because I'm not feminine
Failing to consider that I may be unhappy
Because it's 3 AM and I'm in the depths of YouTube
Watching them... whining.
- 10 Commandments
The genius of the song is that Khan is the lead voice and narrates her version of what it’s like to be catcalled and how “...thou shalt not tell a girl she deserved it because her skirt was too short.” It is a rare case of taking things of the past in a song such as Prince Buster’s and finding new meaning in the modern day.
“Embarrassed By You” asserts “...you make your livin' by robbing from others… pull up your hoodies, are you undercover?” It targets those that seek to undermine the freedoms that were so hard fought by previous generations. “The Life And Times (Of A Man Called Depression)” is a unique look into the head of Terry Hall and the battle with his mental health. It is done in 5/4 timing with guitars and horns mixed with a fitting tribute to The Doors’ song, “Riders On The Storm.” So much so that the reviewer was looking for John Densmore, Robby Krieger, Ray Manzarek, or Jim Morrison in the writing credits. Not so.
The album’s closer “We Sell Hope” is an apocalyptic look at the current state of the world that has been prophesied about for hundreds, even thousands of years. “White is black, black is white, right is wrong, wrong is right, if night is day, then day is night.” As sad as the story is, “we've gotta take care of each other” develops the lyrical arc of the song and plainly implies that hope is all we have. There are no direct answers to our divisive society but our humanity is what can get us out. So I say to The Specials, “thank you.”