Updated: Nov 3, 2021
Josh Robinson dives in deep to give us a track by track guide on the themes behind Sam Fender’s ‘Seventeen Going Under’.
It’s finally here. Sam Fender’s second album Seventeen Going Under was released on Friday 8th October. If you haven’t already, check out the official review of it. In the summer, following the release of his first single of the same name, I published a piece on why you should be excited for his new record. Fair to say then that, as a big fan, I was counting down the days for this one.
I wrote in that preview piece that one of the main reasons I anticipated something great from him was that Lockdown forced him to take stock after a quick, dizzying rise to fame. As he has since said in recent interviews, he did exactly this.
The standard album release is 11 songs & 45 minutes long, with the deluxe standing at a very generous 16 tracks. The album itself has surpassed my huge expectations, which is saying something. Even though we’ve already reviewed this album, it’s so good we want to delve deeper into the themes running through it and the meaning behind some of the standout lyrics.
What are the themes of the album?
As he was stuck inside like all of us, it meant Sam’s storytelling became more introspective and autobiographical. He wasn’t able to use recently heard tales from drunk people down the pub.
He explained that during the pandemic he did therapy, which helped him analyse his own childhood and its lasting effects. This became a running theme for the LP as he communicated lessons he’s learned and how he’s not been able to forget about certain incidents or family strains.
Before I go into a deep-dive, I’ll start by reiterating how good the title track is, which opens the album. I loved it as a single, and its accompanying music video, but when placed in context with the rest of the album it becomes even more impressive. This track is a marker laid down for the songs to follow in their honesty and emotion, he was only just getting started. Ironically, that’s the title of the next tack…
‘Getting Started’ is our first previously unheard treat. This wears the influence of The Police with pride, a properly mature sound. It is generally about teenage escapism. The first line takes us to his life at 18, a year on from the previous track to show that there is a deliberate element of chronological structure. This sets out the intention that he isn’t going to just flirt with his upbringing, he’s letting us in on his life in a thought-out way.
‘Aye’ is a brilliant anti-establishment anthem. It takes aim at the rich who have turned a blind eye to bad stuff whilst simultaneously picking on the poor and vulnerable. This is the biggest punk moment on the project apart from the title track’s sensational B-side ‘Howdon Aldi Death Queue’, which is one of my favourite angry songs of the year. Never afraid to tackle political issues, he uses verse two on ‘Aye’ to paint the picture of public manipulation by those in power:
“They watched the atom bomb reduce two cities to dust / And paint the whole narrative as totally just / They fly drones above our heads / That paint the ground black and red / Children's eyes clasped in dread / They all knew where it led.”
‘Get You Down’ enters the stage next. This was one of the follow-up singles, and is even on the new FIFA 22, so I’d already fell in love with it in isolation. Again, its context in the album gives it extra meaning. He talks about feeling like is having a negative impact on those around him due to his own poor mental health and decision-making. This may actually be Sam’s best song to date. It has absolutely everything. Heartbreaking lyricism, grand production, a trademark sax solo. It is a punch to the stomach and a stroke of the head at the same time – a feeling he extracts from the listener in songs to come, too.
‘Long Way Off’ was perhaps slightly forgettable on first listen. Upon closer inspection of the lyrics whilst re-listening though - always the most fun part of a new album experience, by the way - it grew on me a lot. In contrast to ‘Aye’, he talks about how he feels increasingly disillusioned with politics and how far the left and right are from each other. This is clever as he has shown both sides to his, and I’m sure many others, political appetite. Often, you want to speak up and have your say (as he does in ‘Aye’) but other times you feel apathetic or unheard, like he describes on this one.
The line “all the endless grey conundrums that are painted black and white” is about how nowadays complicated topics are made into these overly simplified discussions that you either have to be fully for or utterly opposed. This is regularly how it seems on social media where a debate can lose context and empathy. He bemoans that the current state of affairs is a long way off where it needs to be for genuine progression.
‘Spit of You’ was the final lead single and boasts a brilliant music video with actor Stephen Graham. It conveys how he and his dad struggle to communicate with each other about the real stuff: “I can talk to anyone. But I can’t talk to you.”
This poor communication led to a strain on their relationship and he has since revealed they have improved on this. He ultimately knows that they’re two peas in a pod in how they deal with their emotions, hence the name of the song.
Then on we flow to ‘Last to Make it Home’. This one really takes us down to a slower tempo with the acoustic guitar and piano at the forefront. Initially, I thought it was about homesickness, feeling like he’s always late coming home. But according to the track by track interview he did on Radio X, it’s about how he attributes his own insecurities as the reason for the breakdown of a romantic relationship. The line “and though I’m a
soundboard to some, with myself I am not so forgiving” reads like poetry. He realises that although it’s a skill to be a good listener, he needs to also get feelings off his own chest and not beat himself up too much.
‘The Leveller’ is really nice, a proper grower. It is defiant in its message, a fighting track against the darkness he often feels. The guitars return in full force with an urgent chorus. “Don't you let it get you. Don't fall in the mire. Hold your head up higher. Don’t you let it sight.” I listened to it for the second time whilst on a long run, and this was a standout one in terms of giving you that extra motivation to keep going, whether that be physically like it was for me or mentally for someone else.
He takes us back down a notch on ‘Mantra’, which has a fantastic opening line: “Please stop trying to impress people who don’t care about you. I repeat as a mantra.” He cites Joni Mitchell as someone he channelled on this number, which is interesting. The vocals are crisp and he plays around on the delivery of a few words, almost showing off.
It’s about the instinctive desire to be validated, even by people whose opinions you shouldn’t care about. One we call on relate to. When talking about the album he repeats the point that it is actually hopeful in the face of sadness rather than wallowing in it. This is underlined in the final lines: “Self-loathing will be culled, if I rise above this lull.” This one displays his eloquent songwriting extremely well.
Penultimate song on the standard album, ‘Paradigms’, is euphoric. He again digs deep into his childhood to find emotional baggage, this time over a beat that brings Arcade Fire and U2 straight to mind. He hints that the government and media have failed to protect the mental wellbeing of this generation: “Every image of perfection starts a goldmine. They gave you bulimia, those marketing masterminds.”
He continues to reiterate his unwavering desire to represent his local community and be a voice for them, inferring that they and he are still the “little guy”. Despite his success, he refuses to forget his roots or attempt to distance himself from them. Instead, he feels like he owes it to his hometown to carry its spirit along with him on his journey to the top, doing them proud.
At the start of closer ‘The Dying Light’ I thought Coldplay’s Chris Martin had stolen the piano and riffed an intro. Sam is the one floating his fingers over the keys though, as he delivers a spiritual sequel to his hard-hitting song ‘Dead Boys’ from debut album Hypersonic Missiles.
Whereas ‘Dead Boys’ stands out at its sheer pragmatic description of male suicide, this one exists optimistically that people can get helped out of these situations; again, this reinforces his opinion that these songs offer hope too rather than just despair. The whole song is fantastic. He defiantly vows not to give up on himself and he wants his friends to do the same. If I had to pick one out lyric though it’s the striking final lines: “I must repel the dying light, for mam and dad and all my pals. For all the ones who didn’t make the night.”
The band explode back into life to carry the emotive message instrumentally until we reach the end of the standard record. You are momentarily gutted until you realise that on the deluxe version there are five extra tracks – so you can continue on. The bonus tracks add some extra layers to a few of the topics Sam has explored, such as love and loss.
Track 12 ‘Better Of Me’ is really pleasant with a catchy piano hook that drifts in and out. It’s one that really shows off his vocal control as some of his delivery is casual but just as warm. The opening lines appear to be the most on the nose depiction of his aforementioned experience with therapy: “It opened up Pandora’s box. And it all came rushing out like water. Trapped inside a pressurised vat.” This paints the image of him spilling out emotions that he kept bottled up for so long. ‘Pretending That You’re Dead’ is about seeing someone you once loved with someone else and wanting badly to forget about them. He cites a presumably true memory of his ex-partner getting together with his mate, a double hit of disloyalty: “And I called it out and said ‘With my best friend?’ You said ‘you should probably leave…’” Then it’s ‘Angel in Lothian’, which adds extra insight into his upbringing with his mother’s issues taking their toll on her and his family. It also includes a sobering lesson he’s learned about substance abuse and the importance of maintaining his health.
“And there are no drugs that can hold it, you gotta hold it yourself.”
For me, the standout of the additional songs is ‘Good Company’. The opening verse depicts the depressing reality that humans can feel fine within themselves one day and struggle the next:
“Sometimes I'm so selfish that it scares me. Other times I'm selfless to a fault. Sometimes I'm the life and soul of the party. Other times I just pull the curtains closed.”
Then to round off the deluxe we have the haunting ‘Poltergeists’, where Sam sounds like he is on the edge, consumed by some depressive thoughts. It’s the opposite feel to its closing counterpart ‘The Dying Light’, where there is defiance against giving up, with pessimism having clearly taken hold of him this time round. Maybe this track serves as another reminder that one’s mental wellbeing is instantly changeable & it has to be monitored closely.
With Seventeen Going Under, we are reminded that Sam’s lyricism will likely be his music’s greatest legacy. A lot of these lyrics are like notes-to-self, designed to stop him from tumbling down into a dark hole. But the improvement in his production with a fuller sound has given his natural storytelling an even better platform to shine.
This album has also seen him hone in on fewer subjects and going deeper on each of them has meant this collection of songs are even more consistent than his debut. I love Hypersonic Missiles but on it he maybe tried to show and say too much too soon, sometimes without taking a focussed aim on specific topics (‘White Privilege’ being an example of his potentially overly-sprawling mind). On its follow-up he has clearly learned that less can be more and to target one issue at a time.
I adore the honesty on this album. I was expecting a high level of it following his previous work but the sheer abundance of it on display this time around is genuinely overwhelming. It makes fans relate to him further and justifies their emotional investment in him. The more you give the more you get back, and he understands this better than your average artist.
So, I was right to give him the hype after all in our preview. Let me be clear: Seventeen Going Under has confirmed Sam Fender as one of the UK’s best talents and has unlocked another part of his genius.