The Geordie singer's coming of age second album is a refreshingly honest, substance-filled rock record which takes him levels above his debut.
“We close our eyes, learn our pain, nobody ever could explain, all the dead boys in our hometown” proclaimed Sam Fender on his 2018 single ‘Dead Boys’. What was slowly gaining exposure, quickly gained momentum after Radio 1's Greg James decided to introduce the track to millions of listeners on his morning breakfast show.
As listeners munched on their cereal and battled rush hour traffic queues, they were greeted with a depressing tale of male suicide and the stigma that exists around depression amongst young men in the UK.
Strangely enough, the hard-hitting track felt like the perfect introduction to the North Shields-born singer who went against the grain to sing about a taboo topic with such emotion. Sandwiched in between established pop songs about love and desire, it was a refreshing and intriguing listen. Already championed by the likes of Annie Mac, here was a singer willing to tackle ugly truths and societal issues in a style many have compared to the great man himself, Bruce Springsteen.
2019’s Hypersonic Missiles debuted at number one on the UK Official Albums Chart and quickly thrust Fender into the mainstream. Whilst not a perfect record by any means, rousing anthems like ‘That Sound’, ‘Will We Talk?’ and ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ proved why the acclaim was necessary.
Just over two years later and he’s back with his second album Seventeen Going Under. Such was the excitement that it even had our writer Josh Robinson "licking his lips" in anticipation when he wrote his preview for it back in July! And he right to do so.
It really felt like Sam Fender had upped his game when title track ‘Seventeen Going Under’ debuted as Hottest Record in the World on Annie Mac’s Radio 1 show on 8 July 2021. Harking back to life as a 17-year-old in North Shields, and inspired by recent therapy sessions, it described a difficult time in Sam’s life where his mum lost her job, (“I see my mother / the DWP see a number / she cries on the floor encumbered”) and the challenges of poverty that faced him (“she said the debt, the debt, the debt / so I thought about shifting gear / and how she wept and wept and wept...”).
With a drum pattern inspired by The War On Drugs and in a familiar, emotive style we've become accustomed to, he also described the enduring anger issues that curse him (“I was far too scared to hit him / but I would hit him in a heartbeat now / that's the thing with anger, it begs to stick around”) as well as the funny-guy front he’d use to mask his problems (“Spiralling in silence / And I armed myself with a grin / 'Cause I was always the fuckin' joker…”). It’s beautiful, powerful and charismatic in one go. A fantastic, pounding anthem to get the album rolling.
Speaking on John Kennedy's Radio X show to break down the new album, Fender admitted that lockdown had forced him to shield for a long time due to a health condition he hasn't yet chosen to share publically. This forced him to become more introspective which, in turn, had a definite effect on his songwriting. With so much time on his hands, he's produced an emotive, reflective record with heartland rock influences, big choruses, punk moments and textured soundscapes.
Second preview single ‘Aye’ is a hard-hitting, punk-inspired track that isn’t afraid to tackle issues of politics and social class. Far more anxious and on edge than ‘Seventeen Going Under’, Fender is keen to get things off his chest. He takes aim at “woke kids” and how the working classes often vote against their own interests. The fact he doesn’t nail his political colours down is purely on purpose and he finishes by declaring his alienation (“I'm not a f*cking patriot anymore / I'm not a f*cking singer anymore / I'm not a f*cking liberal anymore / I'm not a f*cking anything or anyone”). He’s fed up with having to pick a side and such frustration comes through perfectly.
“Get You Down” is one of the most personal tracks on the album, uncovering the self-esteem issues he’s often bogged down by (“And I get you down / I catch myself in a mirror / see a pathetic little boy / who’s come to get you down”), describing how he projects his own feelings of disdain for himself onto his partners. In a similar vein to ‘Seventeen Going Under’, it’s another self-reflective banger, the E Street Band inspired saxophone solo providing a certain euphoria and class at the bridge two-thirds in. The repeated refrain of "get you down" and the use of strings leaves us departing the track on a high and feeling a growing warmth towards the protagonist only four tracks in.
Second album track ‘Getting Started’ is a direct follow on from 'Seventeen Going Under'. It's another upbeat, coming of age song that takes us back to “eighteen, failed dream, attracted to a bad scene”. Sam's looking for an escape from problems at home affecting his ill mother (“It felt like I'd give it up so many times before / But I'm still here grinding / I'm only gettin' started”). ‘Long Way Off’ is another one of those songs which may slip under the radar, yet, with its strings and tension, it contains such a cinematic feel that many have compared it to a James Bond opener. Similar to ‘Aye’, Sam uses his lyrics to berate both sides of the political divide in the wake of Brexit.
Nestled in around three-quarters into the record, ‘The Leveller’ has emerged as an early album favourite amongst the Sam Fender fandom. It’s easily the eeriest track on the album, with strings (again) bringing a certain ominous atmosphere to go with the pounding drums and bass. Lines like “With a cancer in my blood and a ringing in my ear” and “We are the scum who overstayed their welcome”, provide a cynical presence and the climactic finish echoes that of Radiohead’s ‘Burn the Witch’.
Upon release as a single a couple of weeks before the album, ‘Spit Of You’ is described by Sam Fender as being “based around my own relationship with my old man, and if anything, it is a declaration of love for him”. It’s one of his favourites on the new album, seemingly very personal, addressing the similarities he feels he possesses with his old man and the pain he felt watching his dad say goodbye to his grandma. This is a situation he then relates back to his own relationship with his dad, “In all its agony / Every bit of me / Hurting for you / 'Cause one day that'll be your forehead I'm kissing / And I'll still look exactly like you”. It will have you wonder if someone is cutting onions close by. A stunning track to keep us enthralled halfway in!
"Please stop tryin' to impress people who don’t care about you / I repeat as a mantra” opens beautiful ninth track ‘Mantra’. He calls out “sociopaths” in the music industry whose “beauty is exclusively on the surface”, whilst also discussing his own self-esteem issues. The frustration felt in the lyrics, juxtaposes to the music which, sonically, is up there with the most beautiful on the record.
Whilst there are pulsating moments throughout, Sam opts to finish the album with a beautiful, piano-led ballad. The reflective ‘The Dying Light’ is a real tear-jerker. Powerful and emotional, it’s been described by Sam Fender as a sequel to ‘Dead Boys’, instead with a different, overcoming perspective. He brings in the full band for a euphoric final minute and a half, enough for us to wipe away the tears and leave this wonderful album feeling hopeful.
Seventeen Going Under is reflective and honest for the most part, providing us with a record unique in today’s popular music landscape. The songs are chest pumping and emotional, full of soaring choruses and more subtle moments of beauty. There are radio anthems and alternative gems, with Sam taking inspiration from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, The War on Drugs and Mark Knopfler to produce a record which may have a classic influence, but still feels modern and unique.
The lyrics speak of Sam’s frustration growing up in a working-class British town and feeling left behind politically. There’s depth and substance throughout, factors that often let down his debut. Instead, it feels so much more complete and such is the quality on show, you can probably ask five people their favourite tracks and you’ll most likely be met with five different answers!
The album launch party saw the singer mingling with celebratory Newcastle United fans outside St. James Park, before a clip on BBC Breakfast the following morning went viral, admitting on national television that he was “really, really hungover”. Somehow, such an admittance made Sam appear even more approachable and down to earth. Done with a charm often lacking in the mainstream music world, he appeared simply as one of the lads to which can all relate.
For someone so seemingly self-conscious and self-critical, you also have to admire his confidence (or at least his record company's!). On the day prior to his new album’s release, Sam Fender announced his biggest tour yet. In 2022, he will play a host of big venue performances around the UK from Wembley Arena, Glasgow’s SSE Hydro to Manchester’s Castlefield Bowl. To be honest, it's no less than this record deserves.
With Seventeen Going Under, the Geordie-singer has taken himself to the next level, establishing himself as a relatable, introspective indie star who simply produces brilliant, texture filled rock songs. Whilst the record is twinged with sadness and anger, there’s still hope to be found if you look hard enough in these grand, epic songs.
There are millions out there feeling lost, alienated and confused who’ll find solace through Sam Fender’s music. The sky really out to be the limit for this guy.