Sam Fender: Seventeen Going Under
DL | LP | CD
The North Shields singer-songwriter perfects his trademark style on a lyrically introspective yet musically expansive follow-up to his hit debut album Hypersonic Missiles.
The official video for the title track and lead single from Sam Fender’s second album Seventeen Going Under features a glimpse of Tynemouth’s iconic Knott’s Flats housing block in the background. Completed in 1938, the flats were designed to withstand the Luftwaffe’s bombing raids on the nearby Tyneside shipyards and still stand proudly today, perched on a clifftop overlooking the mouth of the mighty River Tyne, a short distance from North Shields’ historic Fish Quay port.
Fender’s hugely successful debut album Hypersonic Missiles drew its power from the youthful songwriter’s keen observations of working-class life in his hometown North Shields, in the same way that Lou Reed’s songs were inspired by the street life of New York and the early songs of Fender’s song-writing hero Bruce Springsteen reflected his New Jersey upbringing.
Springsteen remains Fender’s primary musical influence on this confident and fully realised second album, yet the pulsing, near-motorik beat that drives the more up-tempo numbers continues the Strokes’ influence from its predecessor. The opening title track has echoes of The Waterboys’ Big Music, a folk-inflected guitar motif and stripped-down drum beat underpinning Fender’s precise and evocative lyrics looking back on his teenage years. Returning to the subject of toxic masculinity that Fender explored so effectively on his debut album, the singer traces the links between violence and unresolved anger, while also reflecting angrily on the brutal impact of a Department of Work and Pensions decision on his family. Fender’s facility to lay bare the conflicts and dilemmas of masculinity in the 21st century invites comparisons with the late Jackie Leven, another Northern songwriter with an unflinching approach to this often taboo subject area. Having now fully honed his own lyrical style, shedding some of the more obvious Springsteen narrative motifs in the process, Seventeen Going Under finds Fender truly finding his own voice.
Elsewhere, Aye is powered by a twanging post-punk guitar riff, with Fender adopting an insistent, Lydon-esque timbre as he intones the key lyric “I don’t have time for the very few; they don’t have time for me and you”, while the influence of The Bends-era Radiohead is hard to miss on Paradigms, which like Aye, continues the theme of nuanced but conflicted politics which Fender articulated so adeptly on Hypersonic Missiles.
Driven by Fender’s chiming Jazzmaster riff, Get You Down encapsulates the character of the album, near-symphonic, widescreen stadium rock, lent a darker patina by autobiographical lyrics picking over traces of sometimes difficult autobiographical memories. There’s an undeniable darkness marbled throughout this 11 track album (plus five bonus tracks every bit as good as the main album), with Fender pointedly referencing his own personal challenges of the last two years on The Leveller, a driving rocker which again displays clear post-punk influences.
Seventeen Going Under concludes with a stunning, bravura vocal performance on The Dying Light, a powerfully affecting ballad which not only updates Fender’s quintessential North Shields song Dead Boys (“And those dead boys are always there; there’s more every year”), but finds some kind of resolution to the Tyneside singer’s own, very personal struggles, as Fender vows: “I’m damned if I give up tonight; I must repel the dying light…for all the ones who didn’t make the night.”
At times, Fender’s intelligent, re-wired heartland rock shares similar territory to Manic Street Preachers, but there’s no doubt that the North Shields songwriter has established a unique musical identity, enabling him to pull off the remarkable feat of topping the UK album charts with a modern rock record characterised by intelligent lyrics, not once, but twice. Repeated plays reveal Seventeen Going Under to be a keeper, a modern take on classic arena rock that avoids predictable clichés through its sheer sincerity and relevance to the conflicted times we are living through right now. Fender still lives locally and his connection to his roots is, if anything, stronger than ever. Like the indomitable Knott’s Flats gazing imperiously across the river Tyne, Sam Fender’s weighty artistic presence is here to stay.
All words by Gus Ironside, 2021.