Sam Fender: Hypersonic Missiles review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week

(Polydor)
The North Shields singer-songwriter may look cookie-cutter but his gritty, gloriously anthemic songs on toxic masculinity, violence and death are anything but

Sam Fender seems to have arrived direct from central casting: Brit Critics’ Choice award 2019 winner, nominated in 2018’s BBC Sound Of poll, looks like a model, background in acting, here we go again. Which means his debut album comes as a shock: a major label in 2019 appears to have signed a male British singer-songwriter who doesn’t conform to the standard late 2010s male British singer-songwriter blueprint. He has neither a beard nor a beanie hat, declines to play the acoustic guitar as his primary instrument and seems to have refused to work with the same pool of writers and producers as everyone else. The songs on Hypersonic Missiles bear Fender’s name alone, while the production comes courtesy of a friend called Bramwell Bronte.

Sam Fender: Hypersonic Missiles album art work
Sam Fender: Hypersonic Missiles album art work Photograph: Publicity Image

Furthermore, Fender doesn’t sing in the officially designated style that all British male singer-songwriters currently adhere to. It perhaps tells you more about the times than about Sam Fender that there’s something striking about hearing a mainstream rock vocalist who actually sounds like a human being – with a distinct hint of the north-east about his vowels and the occasional unexpected appearance of a “wor” in lieu of an “our” – rather than a preposterous collage of mannerisms, affectations and faux-bluesy got-a-hellhound-on-my-trail-at-the-fresher’s-fair bellowing. Given the music industry’s obsession with giving us more of the same, how did this bloke get past security?

The sound of Hypersonic Missiles is rooted in the US heartlands rock of Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen, albeit usually underpinned with tense, new wave-ish rhythms that imply Fender may have come to the former via the Strokes and the latter via the War on Drugs: there’s a distinct hint of the latter’s tendency to hypnotic, motorik beats about the pulse of The Borders or the drum machine-driven You’re Not the Only One. Will We Talk? makes good capital from the kind of relentless, supercharged guitar jangle Petty minted on 1976’s American Girl, while the spell Springsteen has cast over Fender extends not just to his desire to write stuff that sounds grittily anthemic, but to employing a sax player to honk in the style of the late Clarence Clemons. It’s testament to how confident his own songwriting is that while Fender’s influences are audible, they’re not overwhelming: you can tell who he’s been listening to, but that scarcely seems to matter as the title track blazes along or the chorus of Saturday bursts forth. What’s here doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s very well done.

Sam Fender: Will We Talk? – video

He’s also occasionally in thrall to Springsteen’s patent brand of small-town lyrical myth-making: “Tonight the streets are heaving with young hearts on the chase, we’ll have this place on lockdown … the night is ours,” he sings on You’re Not the Only One, which by anyone’s standards seems a charmingly romantic way of depicting Friday evening round the pubs of his native North Shields. In fact, his songs tend to focus on the sort of earnest topics a lot of people have tried to essay recently – mental health, toxic masculinity, social media and sexism among them. The difference is that Fender’s lyrics sound rooted in bitter experience rather than an exercise in woke box-ticking: the numb tenor of Dead Boys, a song about suicide, hits home emotionally in the same way that the Stereophonics’ uncharacteristically acute Local Boy in the Photograph did; The Borders’ saga of bullying and domestic violence is brilliant, the bleakness of the unfolding story at odds with the euphoric music, the cumulative effect cathartic rather than awkward.

In the past, Fender hasn’t always hit the target lyrically. You could see where he was coming from with Poundshop Kardashians, a track from his debut EP that set out to bemoan the effect of fame-for-fame’s sake reality TV on youth aspirations, but it was too blunt an instrument for its own good, devoid of the empathy that characterised, say, Arctic Monkeys’ similarly themed A Certain Romance, and ended up sounding sneering: “being a prick”, as he later conceded. There are certainly odd hints of gaucheness here – “the tensions of the world are rising higher, we’re probably due another war with all this ire”, offers the title track – but more often there’s depth and maturity. It’s hard not to heave a trepidatious sigh when you spot a song called White Privilege, but it turns out to be a far more complex and nuanced affair than the attention-grabbing title suggests: its tone of baffled despair pretty apt for the moment.

Hypersonic Missiles isn’t a perfect debut, which is probably for the best. If there’s one lesson to be taken from rock music over the last 20 years, it’s that an artist who arrives without a hair out of place is an artist in trouble. If you turn up fully-formed, there’s usually nowhere to go next. Instead, it feels like something mainstream rock music hasn’t dished up in a long time: an album that sounds not just like a hit, but a loud announcement of a striking talent with the space and potential to mature and develop. Which might make it a perfect debut after all.

This week Alexis listened to

Sturgill Simpson: Sing Along


Unexpected: the first track taken from country maverick Simpson’s fourth album (and film), Sound & Fury, joyously reanimates the grimy electronic boogie of ZZ Top circa Eliminator.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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