“I adore Bruce Springsteen,” says North Shields’ Sam Fender. “I feel like he doesn’t beat around the bush and he doesn’t overcomplicate things.” Listening to his music you would surely agree that, yes, this earnestly down-to-earth, uncomplicated singer-songwriter really does adore The Boss. Yet while honest, well-intentioned hero-worship will get you only so far, thankfully on his second album Seventeen Going Under, rich evidence testifies that there’s so much more to Fender than heartland rock pastiche.
In the pre-pandemical times of September 2019, Fender topped the album chart with his gritty and musically varied debut Hypersonic Missiles, on the title track of which he declared “I’m not smart enough to change a thing, I have no answers, only questions”. Yet he was eloquent on male suicide and the black dog, and turned his attentions to such matters as domestic violence, yearning for escape from neglected towns, the Middle East, notions of white privilege and masculinity, and living in poverty. Spawning eight singles, the album built huge momentum on its way to being certified gold and spending more than a year on the UK Album Chart. In short order came a sell-out tour, a support slot opening for Neil Young and Bob Dylan at Hyde Park, and being namechecked by fellow Tynesider Sting on national television.
Now with the strangest time in our lives showing signs of easing, Fender’s follow-up album arrives backed with an arena tour, and promises much in the way of making up for lost momentum. It is musically, and especially lyrically, a rocket boost up from an already high base, and with it this 27-year-old stakes his claim as one of this land’s biggest and brightest pop names. That this should be so is, on one level, startling. Here is a distinctive record which opens with the title track’s lines about the sickness of anger, fist fights on the beach “and the boy who kicked Tom’s head in”. Such arrestingly incisive lyrics, coupled with strong melodic songwriting, are set off with crisp, no-nonsense production that centres Fender’s hollering, urgent tenor. His deft pairing of observed detail in sometimes dialectic lyricism with full-belt propulsive arrangements might have been precision engineered for fans of The Killers, but it’s undoubtedly all him. This is music and a man built for arenas on their own terms, without artifice.
Of the album’s broad themes, Fender says it is “about growing up, the trials and tribulations that come with it, and the self-esteem issues that we carry through to adulthood. But primarily, it’s about hope. The hope that we have it in us to rise above adversity, and the strength to help carry those who sink”. But rising above adversity first means addressing pressing issues, and across the 11 tracks here Fender sets about them. The terrific title track’s arresting details – “I see my mother, The DWP see a number”; “Amongst the white noise and boys’ boys, Locker-room talkin’ lads’ lads, Drenched in cheap drink and snide fags, A mirrored picture of my old man” – says a great deal with few words. This track and Getting Started, which follows, are the most Springsteen-esque musically, while the euphoric burst of energy that is Get You Down reminds most of Brandon Flowers‘ gang.
On ambitious, Fontaines DC-adjacent polemical blast Aye, Fender’s brush is broader as he takes on the 2021 global horrorsphere and gallantly tries to contextualise it all across space and time, from Boudica’s defeat to the Romans, via the Atom Bomb drops and the assassinations of Kennedy and Lennon, to the crimes of Jeffrey Epstein. Coming over all microscopic cog in a catastrophic plan, he scatterguns frustrated barbs at a deep sense of unidentified wrongness, giving both barrels to an amorphous “they” who are “the very few” who “hate the poor” and who seem to be behind all injustice and indignity. In fury he runs out of road with his increasingly angry words and indeed his thought processes, letting the compelling motorik beat grab the reins, and jumping clear of the crushing awfulness of it all: “I’m not a fucking patriot any more, I’m not a fucking liberal any more, I’m not a fucking anything or anyone.” Aye is, he says, “about that kind of ego death that I and a lot of people are having where I just want out. I don’t know where to go, though, so I’ve just gotta live with it.” Nihilistic rage is palpable here, coming from an inquiring mind that seeks solutions, even if only to be overwhelmed by malevolent problems. Yet it goes down gloriously with all guns blazing.
Powerful riffing on personal experiences hits hard on the raw highlight Spit Of You, which addresses a difficult father-son relationship in matter-of-fact lyrics, with toxicity traversing the generations: “They say I’m the spit of you… I can talk to anyone, I can’t talk to you.” Observed details of feelings read like notebook scribblings – “Stomach hurts all the time, can’t shift it, been like that since eight” – but taken together they add up to a powerful gut-punch. The track is particularly poignant when discussing his father kissing his dead grandmother goodbye: “One day, that’ll be your forehead I’m kissing, and I’ll still look like you.” Fender’s plaintive concluding holler, harmonised before giving way to sax, holds out for a resolution more in hope than expectation, for again the lyrics don’t provide one. But at least the situation has been spoken of, the silent wall demolished, the suppressed rage-bomb defused. It’s a start. Talking’s good.
So much is there to say about Fender’s lyrics, but the music is notable too, for the step-change in his writing and performance. On the jet engined The Leveller there’s a goosebump-inducing drop-out in the middle worthy of a DJ when his voice holds a note, only for strings, bass and drums come rushing back in underneath, and a wild guitar whirls in above to conclude over impassioned entreaties to “hold your head up” and “don’t fall in”. It is supremely well crafted stuff. A variation of pace beyond anthemic comes with the little-guy-versus-capitalism Long Way Off, while Mantra’s message of loving and respecting yourself necessarily dials back the hollering and fills out the arrangement. Paradigms reminds of The Frank And Walters in their emotionally punchy pomp, while piano-led closer The Dying Light aims for epic territory while revealing another side to his sound.
On the back of these songs Fender will play stadiums in 2022, and festival headline slots will surely follow. Seventeen Going Under is powerful, essential stuff, a coming of age album that speaks to the human experience in the here and now. Its creator is absolutely the real deal.