The personal and the political collide on Sam Fender’s tumultuous and life-affirming second record.
Happy songs are easy to come by. Political commentary is woven throughout the popular music canon. But creating music that speaks truth to power while affirming the very things that make life worth fighting for is a much harder task. Bruce Springsteen could do it, Stevie Wonder could do it, and Sam Fender can certainly do it.
On his sophomore album, Seventeen Going Under, the 27-year old English rocker reflects on his adolescence and the social issues that shaped it. Looking both inwards at his own emotional development and outwards towards his hometown of North Shields and the people that inhabit it, Fender shows a Springsteen-esque attention to character and setting. ‘This town is a world of waifs and strays, / comedy giants, penniless heroes, / dead men at the bar, I’ve drank with them all,’ he sings, sketching out the scene that provides backdrop for much of the album.
While Springsteen is the most obvious point of comparison, Fender also cites contemporaries, the War on Drugs as a prime inspiration. Their influence shines through in Fender’s gleaming guitar sound and in his lyrics exploring the darker side of the human psyche. You can also hear echoes of Arcade Fire in the propulsive, rhythmic exhilaration of tracks like ‘Get You Down’ and ‘The Leveller’, while ‘Angel in Lothian’ and ‘Pretending You’re Dead’ sparkle with a warm jangle pop sound a la the Pretenders or the Smiths, if Morrissey had ever had an optimistic thought.
Fender’s powerful title track kicks off the record, recounting his memories of his late teens and the poverty that shaped this formative time: ‘I see my mother, / the DWP see a number. / She cries on the floor encumbered. / I’m seventeen going under.’ It’s an invigorating taste of what’s to come, instilling both a youthful energy, and a sense of accumulating anxiety. ‘That’s the thing with anger,’ he asserts, ‘it begs to stick around.’
Anger is hardly new emotional territory for Fender’s music. His 2019 debut album Hypersonic Missiles was jam-packed with searing indictments of bigotry, corporatism and Britain’s right-wing leadership. Seventeen Going Under has its fair share of mordant commentary too, the track ‘Aye’ evoking the same cold, unforgiving tone as Bob Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’, and the frantic, ominous ‘The Leveller’ prophesising an ‘almighty crash / as Little England rips itself to pieces.’
But the record is also deeply personal and reflective. Sombre piano ballads such as ‘Last to Make It Home’ and ‘The Dying Light’ open space for Fender to exert the full power of his rich, sonorous voice. One of the most touching tracks is ‘Spit of You’. Gentler than any prior track, the tender instrumental conveys both the sincere love and the trepidation with which Fender addresses his troubled relationship with his father.
The most powerful moment on the record, however, comes pulsing with vitality and anger on the phenomenal single ‘Get You Down’, Fender’s cathartic anthem of self-loathing. A fiery sax solo from Johnny Davis and the string section’s searing crescendo set the song ablaze, Fender singing in desperation, ‘I catch myself in the mirror, / see a pathetic little boy, / who’s come to get you down.’
It’s this communication of hopelessness with such exuberance and soul that marks Fender out as a rare talent. There may be nothing radically innovative about his sound, but the raw, visceral humanity and effortless sense of melody that guide the album transform its classic influences into something fresh, exciting and immediate, and assure us that, while Sam Fender is around, rock music still has a lot to say.
Listen to Seventeen Going Under: