On the night that Sam Fender released his sophomore album ‘Seventeen Going Under’, the takeover of Newcastle United football team from the widely despised Mike Ashley to the seemingly infinitely wealthy Saudi group ‘PIF’ was confirmed. To celebrate, Fender went down to St James Park; where his saxophone player Johnny Davis climbed atop a statue to play ‘Local Hero’. Soon Fender was swamped by fans baying for selfies and handing him cans of beer. The next morning, in a now viral clip – that has nearly as many views as his album’s lead single – he admitted on BBC Breakfast to being “really, really hungover”. Later that week, a video did the rounds of Sam trying out various different foods for ‘Lad Bible’; declaring with a laugh, one item to be “absolutely liltin’“.
Both of these clips showcase Fender’s reputation in popular British culture; affable, relatable and a little goofy – compilations entitled “Sam Fender being dumb for a concerning amount of time” and “Sam Fender being a bellend for sixteen minutes straight” are lovingly shared by fans. The difference between Fender’s public persona and his profoundly bleak music could not be greater – his charming and disarming honesty being the only through line between the two. It’s a stark reminder of the many sorrows that can hide behind a smile.
Sam’s debut LP ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ didn’t spawn any big hits; it’s highest charting single ‘Will We Talk?’ peaked at the 43rd spot on the British charts, but the album itself went gold and spent nearly a year on the top 100 and, it had critics shower praise upon him; labelling him a “Geordie Springsteen” and the “voice of a generation”. In giving voice to the political grievances of Gen-Z, the album made Fender something of a young-icon to many (especially in his hometown) and also made his music the subject of contentious debate (the song ‘White Privilege’ drew furious reaction from conservative audiences).
There’s still a lot of politics on ‘Seventeen Going Under’, but this time, Sam’s political musings are rooted in personal experience – something that makes him a far more captivating messenger of his ideals. The title track, opener and lead single remains the centrepiece of Fender’s sophomore effort; a roaring 5 minute epic that sees Fender lean harder than ever into his Springsteen influence. But whereas the music of Springsteen was rooted in his New Jersey background, Fender’s is unmistakeably linked to his Northern, working class upbringing; as he traces the mundanity of teenage life (“The fist fights on the beach / The Bizzies round us up / Do it all again next week”), bottled up anger (“And the boy who kicked Tom’s head in / Still bugs me now”), putting on appearances (“And I armed myself with a grin / ‘Cause I was always the fuckin’ joker”) and battling hopelessly against the inhumanities of austerity (“I see my mother, the DWP see a number / She cries on the floor encumbered”).
Following up the title track is one hell of a task, but Fender delivers with remarkable ease; from the anthemic ‘Aye’; a scathing takedown of the political class (“They watched kids go to Epstein’s bed”) to the album’s two greatest emotional masterpieces ‘Spit of You’ and ‘Get You Down’. The latter is a brutally self-deprecating portrait of a man watching his own depression wreak havoc on a loved one (“I catch myself in the mirror / See a pathetic little boy / Who’s come to get you down”), while the former depicts a son with a fractured relationship with his father, coming to realise they’re not so different after all. It all culminates in the greatest verse Fender has written to date; chronicling his father kissing his mother (and Sam’s grandmother) goodbye, before Sam releases he too will one day be in the same position with own dad:
“You kissed her forehead
And it ran like a tap
No more than four stone soaked wet through
And I’d never seen you like that
Spun me out
Hurt me right through
‘Cause it was love
In all its agony
Every bit of me
Hurtin’ for you
‘Cause one day that’ll be your forehead I’m kissin’
And I’ll still look exactly like you”
Another emotional centrepiece is the closer ‘The Dying Light’ – described by Sam as an “epic sequel” to ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ highlight ‘Dead Boys’ – an ode to those lost from suicide. With a heart-aching matter of factness, Sam sings “And those dead boys are always there / There’s more every year”, depicting himself alone at the bar surrounded by the ghosts of past. It’s yet another masterpiece of song-writing, in an album full of them.
The lyricism here is consistently exceptional and establishes Fender as the greatest songwriter to come out of Britain in the last decade, if not the century. When these songs hit, they really hit – like a wrecking ball to the gut. Only occasionally – mostly on the back-half of this album – is the emotional potency of these tracks blunted by the constant Springsteen-meets-Dylan arrangements; this album is crying out for a moment of quiet solitude like Hypersonic’s ‘Dead Boys’ and it would’ve gotten something close to it if the fantastic ‘Angel In Lothian’ hadn’t been relegated to bonus track statement.
From the mindset of a music critic, it’s easy to pick at ‘Seventeen Going Under’s’ faults – some have already dismissed it as “dad rock” – but the main takeaway for anyone from this album should be how profoundly moving it is. No other artist in recent memory has managed to make a statement like this; one that so powerfully speaks to the pain and struggles of men in working class Britain; the terse negotiation with masculinity and anger, of frayed father-son relationships, of being left-behind by the powers that be. There’s a sense listening to ‘Seventeen Going Under’ that this has the power to be a hugely powerful, even life changing album for many.
Best Tracks: ‘Seventeen Going Under’, ‘Get You Down’, ‘Spit of You’, ‘Aye’, ‘Last To Make It Home’, ‘Paradigms’, ‘Angel In Lothian’ (Deluxe version only)