millennial two-tone: the new specials album is great

February 8, 2019
118 Picks

There are times when “aging well” has nothing to do with physical appearances. This is the first and best thought that ushers in Encore, the new, highly unlikely but indisputably great comeback album by The Specials, a British band whose 1970s and ’80s existence and participation in Two-Tone (record label and movement) sowed seeds for what became AFROPUNK’s UK wing. Great ideas and great cultural uprisings — Two-Tone was both — have the spirit to remain forever young (hence, the popular cliche). The best of them though, get even better, acquiring gravitas and the sharpness of experience. Fine wine, and all that.

This is central to Encore’s accomplished fun, beauty and power. The Specials’ central ideals of Black plus white — a mixed race band, playing music that blends Black Atlantic forms (soul, ska, dub) with punk’s ferocity, espousing anti-racist/-colonialist screeds — were designed to challenge socio-political shit-shows like the ones given central staging today, by Tr*mp and Brexit. Which only makes the pairing of band-comeback and Zeitgeist-moment even more prominent.    

Don’t get me wrong: Encore is (mostly) old-style music by (mostly) old-school men. There’s nothing outwardly youthful about what the gathered three original Specials — singer Terry Hall (59), singer/guitarist Lynval Golding (67), and bassist Horace Panter (65) — have made here. The album’s instrumentation is that of an all-star, garage-soul-reggae outfit in the analog 1970s, with horns, organ and razor-like guitar doing much of the work, as if hip-hop/grime lyricism or digital recording haven’t been invented yet.

The music too betrays a relationship to the past that’s more lived-in than Googled. The opener is a fierce, earnest cover of The Equals/Eddy Grant’s 1968 anti-Vietnam, garage-rock anthem, “Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys” (“ain’t gonna fight no war”). Hall brings back and re-sarcasm-cizes “The Lunatics,” one of the hits by Fun Boy Three, the band he and Golding formed after quitting The Specials in 1981. And there’s a fresh readings of The Valentines’ “Gunsfever,” a conscious rocksteady nugget from one of Jamaica’s blam blam eras. The performances are tight and reckless in the best ways; the content — activism transcending racial stereotypes, dysfunctional politics, street violence — couldn’t be more news-cycle-ready.

But such cherry-picking of life’s archives to engage the present is only a set of context-candy bookends here. The wholly unexpected magic of Encore lies in the strength of direct connections in the work — classic forms and ideas pervading contemporary songs, not just drawing a through-line between issues of 35 years ago and now, but hacking stereotypes and creating pedestals that seem revolutionary AF. Especially if you’re nearing the age of some of its creators, which many of the album’s characters — the lying politicians and duped voters, the technologically exploited and the “not all” nationalists, the endless salespeople — and its consumers, most certainly are.

Take Jamaica-born Golding’s “BLM,” a spoken-word autobiographical piece featuring three episodes of that good ol’ fashioned British and American racism suffered by his father (a member of the Windrush generation) and by himself. Made with the same chugging rock organ as “Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys,” “BLM” claims most of its power through Lynval’s storytelling; and just when you’d expect it to leave its arching point to the title acronym, Golding spells it out for the back of the room. “I’m not here to teach you, I’m not here to preach to you, I just want to reach out and say…Black Lives Matter.” His life-wearied, 67 year-old voice sounds as resigned as many we hear on the news, which is maybe what makes Golding’s performance transcendent.

Among Encore’s other moments of trans-generational glory — and one that seems to chance a glimmer for a non-bleak future — belongs to Saffiyah Khan, a young brown woman and pro-immigrants/anti-Brexit protester whose image went viral when she smiled knowingly at a member of the racist English Defense League during a rally in Britain two years ago. All while wearing a Specials shirt. Khan’s voice pops up here on a new reading of Prince Buster’s “10 Commandments,” which was once a set of rules for women to follow in order to please the Jamaican ska superstar. She’s remade it as a Millennial feminist’s proclamation, one that inhales society’s troll culture, rape culture and body-shaming (“because it’s 3am and I’m in the depths of YouTube”), then spits it back out at the pseudo-intellectuals and their “newfound look of confusion.” Though her demeanor is sardonic, the dub bounce underneath Khan tells a more earnest story: “I will win.”

Khan makes it hard to bet against her future. Just as The Specials’ Encore makes it hard for all the aging liberal rock stars with no new tales to tell, to trod out the same old maxims. May their Encore be heard, and be an inspiration.