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

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

Khruangbin - One to Remember (Forget Me Nots Dub)
The closer from Khruangbin’s remix album: a ray of autumn sunshine, with a vague hint of the old Patrice Rushen hit referenced in the remix’s title.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Sam Fender: Hypersonic Missiles review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week
The North Shields singer-songwriter may look cookie-cutter but his gritty, gloriously anthemic songs on toxic masculinity, violence and death are anything but

Alexis Petridis

12, Sep, 2019 @11:00 AM

Article image
Sam Fender: ‘Leftie is now a slur in working-class towns’
In a brutally honest interview ahead of his stunning second album, the Tyneside chart-topper discusses politics, family, fame and mental health

Interview by Ben Beaumont-Thomas

25, Aug, 2021 @12:00 PM

Article image
Damon Albarn: The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows review – beautifully haunting
One of the most driven artists of the Britpop era, now unbothered by commercial success, is back with a second solo album that drifts along in a melancholy, stoned mist

Alexis Petridis

11, Nov, 2021 @12:00 PM

Article image
Low: Hey What review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week
The veteran group continue the scorched digital manipulations of 2018 masterpiece Double Negative, but their vocals are left pristine and beautiful

Alexis Petridis

09, Sep, 2021 @10:30 AM

Article image
Jane Weaver: Flock review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week
Having earned a cult audience for her psychedelia, Weaver makes her version of a pop record, where Kylie-level hooks are set against hallucinatory backings

Alexis Petridis

04, Mar, 2021 @12:00 PM

Article image
For Those I Love: For Those I Love review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week
A eulogy for a dead friend, David Balfe’s stirring debut combines lyrics on class, death and despair with clubland highs and hope

Alexis Petridis

25, Mar, 2021 @12:00 PM

Article image
The 1975: Notes on a Conditional Form review I Alexis Petridis's album of the week
Piling on genres and themes, the unwieldy NOACF smartly interprets contemporary chaos yet seriously lacks quality control

Alexis Petridis

21, May, 2020 @11:00 AM

Article image
SG Lewis: Times review – soaring, subtle disco for kitchen dancefloors
Given the British producer’s skill for emotionally attuned nightclub elation, his debut shouldn’t suffer from the shutdown of its natural habitat

Alexis Petridis

18, Feb, 2021 @12:00 PM

Article image
Arca: Kick ii, iii, iiii, iiiii review | Alexis Petridis's albums of the week
Four new albums of extravagantly warped electronics offer listeners a lot to take in – and her most pop-focused music to date

Alexis Petridis

03, Dec, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
The Courteeners: More. Again. Forever. review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week
Without abandoning the well-executed anthemics that form the basis of their success, the Manchester band’s sixth album weighs in on the subjects of ageing, alcohol and mental health

Alexis Petridis

16, Jan, 2020 @12:00 PM