Hitting the big time in 2019 must have been a strange experience, given that the next 18 months were in danger of undoing all that momentum. But for Sam Fender, who is back with his second studio album, that time to reflect seems to have done wonders. On Seventeen Going Under, Sam Fender has levelled up.
Fender, who number one debut Hypersonic Missiles, an album of socially minded pop-rock that cemented him as Tyne and Wear’s premiere Springsteen tribute, winning Critic’s Choice at the Brits along the way and being one of the few artists hand-picked to play socially distanced concerts mid-pandemic, has often drawn on other people’s lives for his songs, exploring toxic masculinity, domestic violence and the perils of small town life in the north.
But Seventeen Going Under is more firmly focused on his own; his teenage years and the struggle as a working class family under a careless government in a neglected town. Thankfully, it is not a Covid-focused album, but the inward gaze we’ve all had to confront during lockdown is sprinkled liberally over it.
It barrels through, Fender’s voice propelling every song forward. He’s always pushing, and cajoling with his vocal lines, always asking for more from himself. The title track pulses with adolescent rage fed by regret over not doing things differently (hitting someone who beat up a friend, for example): it seeps from his strained, gabbling vocal.
“God the kid looks so sad,” he sings of his former self as the music tries to hide the despair, the missed opportunities, with jaunty twinkles and that perfect New Jersey beat. It’s not the only time he sees himself: on “Get You Down” he looks at the pathetic little boy in the mirror repeating the same mistakes as the saxophone wails like a call to the wild.
“Last To Make It Home” is wine-drunk sad, and “Aye” is a blistering rage against society which makes you want to take to the streets and smash a few windows over the inequalities of modern Britain. The record progresses into something more forgiving; musically it chills out a bit with the sombre “Dying Light” and “Mantra”. The solemn cry that “No one should feel like this” in “Paradigm” gathers its weight from the grubby, hard fought emotion of the life that made the album.
It feels good to have a popular artist whose songs not only fill your heart and twitch your hips but also say things worth hearing; simply being reminded that each number that makes up the statistics we hear in the news is an actual person feels like a worthy use of an album that will be widely heard.
He’s not the only one out there trying to Trojan horse us with our own humanity, but to hear someone doing it via actual melody rather than shouting sixth-form poetry over a cacophonous mess as the trend has been lately (take a bow, Sleaford Mods) hits hardest.
Stream: Aye, Dying Light, Seventeen Going Under