Sam Fender: Seventeen Going Under review – music that punches the air and the gut

Polydor
The North Shields songwriter replaces his former broad-brush politicking with rousing but arrestingly bleak, personal material that puts his indie-rock peers in the shade

Over on the video-sharing platform TikTok, videos with the hashtag #samfender have received more than 258m views. There is cameraphone footage of his gigs, clips of his TV interviews and lists of “top tier indie bois” in which the 27-year-old singer-songwriter seems to rank highly. And there are a wide selection of videos for which the title track of Fender’s second album provides a soundtrack. It plays behind montages of holiday snaps, perfunctory visual guides on how to cook a steak sandwich and how to crochet a tote bag and a bafflingly popular video featuring someone mashing up doughnuts with a pestle and mortar.

The artwork for Seventeen Going Under.
The artwork for Seventeen Going Under Photograph: PR Handout

And why wouldn’t Seventeen Going Under provide a soundtrack for happy summer memories and doughnut-based antics? It’s propulsive, possessed of a breezy melody and a wordless middle-eight that might have been designed for crowds to woah-oh-oh along to in the huge venues Fender started playing after his 2019 debut album Hypersonic Missiles went gold. Yet it opens with a grim description of numb teenage nihilism (“I remember the sickness was for ever, I remember snuff videos”) shifts into a rumination on violence, toxic masculinity and mental illness, and concludes with the image of Fender’s mother, mired in debt and suffering from fibromyalgia, crying after an unsuccessful application to the Department for Work and Pensions.

It’s a useful indicator both of the unique position Fender holds – a white twentysomething male singer-songwriter with a mainstream pop audience who is distinct from all the other white twentysomething male singer-songwriters – and of the tone of his second album. It isn’t a vast musical leap from his debut. Fender’s primary influence is still Bruce Springsteen, mostly in soaring-anthems-decorated-with-saxophone mode, although the reflective piano ballad Boss of Racing in the Street or Stolen Car lurks behind closer The Dying Light. And the rhythms of his songs still lean towards clipped and taut, equal parts motorik beat and the Strokes circa Hard to Explain. But it offers a big qualitative jump, particularly lyrically. It pares away its predecessor’s well-intentioned but clumsy broad-brush politicking and replaces it with sharp details born of personal experience. It shakes off Springsteen’s lyrical influence, most notably the desire to add romantic, novelistic sheen: there’s a potent collision between the stirring air-punch-inducing quality of the music and the bleakness of what Fender has to say.

Sam Fender: Seventeen Going Under

The end product is both commercial – big choruses, sticky melodies – and an arresting portrayal of life in his home town, North Shields, “as little England rips itself to pieces”, in the words of The Leveller. The whole thing simmers with a compelling anger, which boils over both on the disarmingly pretty Paradigms – “no one should feel like this” – and Aye, a song that inhabits white working-class disillusionment: “The woke kids are just dickheads.” The beat feels less hypnotic than unrelenting, the melody is scraped away to a monotone and as it reaches its climax Fender’s voice takes on the keening quality of John Lydon: “I’m not a fucking patriot any more… I’m not a fucking liberal any more, I’m not a fucking anything or anyone.”

Elsewhere, his gaze shifts inwards. There’s been surfeit of self-examination in pop over recent years, but Fender’s approach is too acute and unsparing to be dismissed as millennial solipsism. Mantra takes that traditional second album standby, the prematurely jaded fame-isn’t-all-it’s-cracked-up-to-be whinge and turns it on its head, concerning itself not with the unedifying sound of a pop star complaining about being a pop star but the “self-loathing” of impostor syndrome. Spit of You deals with father-son relations in bleakly moving terms, where qualms about an inherited bad temper and an inability to communicate are undercut by the sight of his dad kissing the body of his grandmother in a chapel of rest: “One day, that’ll be your forehead I’m kissing.”

It goes without saying that this is not the usual stuff currently served up to lovers of top tier indie bois: in 2021, what you might call mainstream alternative rock still sells in album chart-topping quantities, small as they are, but it seems moribund and faceless, a placeholder for people who either missed out on Britpop or wish it was still with us. Seventeen Going Under feels urgent, incisive and brave when it would have been easier for Fender to deck out his festival-ready, TikTok-able melodies with something notably blander and less pointed. Instead, Seventeen Going Under is an album rooted in 2021 that, in spirit at least, seems to look back 40-something years, to the brief early 80s period when Top of the Pops played host to the Specials and the Jam. The result is really powerful.

This week Alexis listened to

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Alexis Petridis

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