The Specials didn't end their golden age cleanly and they didn't reunite smoothly, either. Lynval Golding, Horace Panter and Neville Staple brought the group back in 1996 and that incarnation lasted for five years before being put on ice, but their revival was overshadowed by the 2008 reunion that featured vocalist Terry Hall as well as Roddy Radiation and John Bradbury from the group's golden days. This reunion stuck around for a decade, gradually losing members until only Hall, Golding and Panter were left, augmented by Ocean Colour Scene/Paul Weller guitarist Steve Cradock. This is the lineup who recorded Encore, a new studio album that arrives roughly ten years after the initial reunion, 18 years after Conquering Ruler, which was the last album released by the Specials, and a whopping 39 years after More Specials, which was the last time Hall made an album with the band. Hall's return to the fold is to be celebrated, but it's hard not to notice the absence of Jerry Dammers, the band's chief songwriter and keyboardist who left behind music for activism upon the dissolution of Special AKA in 1984. Although the Specials push social commentary to the forefront on Encore -- there is an ode to Black Lives Matter, a swipe against the second amendment, and the old Fun Boy Three tune "The Lunatics (Have Taken Over the Asylum)" has been recast as an anthem for the era of Brexit and Trump -- they're not spending much time on constructing songs, or even hooks. Everything on Encore is amiable but not especially defined: they play with the ease of a group who has made their living on the road, but they lack urgency, even when they're singing about hot-button issues. Despite this lack of fire, Encore is a definite step up from the covers albums the Specials made surrounding Y2K: they feel like a band with a purpose, even if they're not making an especially big deal about it.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine