A powerful and timely second album...
Sam Fender Artwork

I’ve said it a thousand times before to anyone who will listen, but there’s something distinct and special about listening to Sam Fender when you’re from the North East. From my childhood home down the road from his, I remember the first time I heard ‘Leave Fast’. Darting back and forth between home and my adopted Uni city, the song perfectly captured a feeling I wasn’t sure any of my peers could truly relate to, a feeling that home would hold you hostage and you needed to decide whether to run or get Stockholm Syndrome. 

There’s moments of the same sense of clarity and kinship throughout his debut record, 'Hypersonic Missiles', as 'Two Kids' sings of small town monotony and its cyclical way of life, ‘Dead Boys’ provides a eulogy for lost friends and ‘Saturday’ gives us a song to sing of the weekend despite it all. I hear home in Sam in a way that makes me want to gate keep, but I won’t. He too good for that.

And honestly it would probably be impossible. There’s no denying that Sam blew up, with tracks like ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ and ‘Will We Talk’ sound tracking 2019’s festival circuit as big euphoric indie bangers. But with every hand raised in the air, it felt like the politics and origin of the album got lost. Full of sharp, critical lyrics and gut-wrenching moments that painted a perfect picture of life in the North East, balancing bleakness with joy, the sound systems felt too big for people to pay attention. On his debut Sam was getting at something, on 'Seventeen Going Under', he’s screaming it in your face. 

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From the first titular single, there was immediately something different in Sam. Staying relatively the same in sound with his catching guitar rhythms and added saxophone interest, his approach however seemed changed. His interviews became more full on, dropping the conversations about ‘wae'aye mate isn’t it great to be a Geordie’ to instead tackle politics and tory destruction of the North. Filled with pain and anger, ‘Seventeen Going Under’ keeps the same sound but is full of lyrics so confrontational you can’t ignore them this time as he creates a scene so visceral and tragic, it’s a whole BBC drama in one song. 

A movement undoubtedly credited to lockdown, and Sam having to shield alone for months on end, the new record has turned inwards. While 'Hypersonic Missiles' was full of characters, giving room to other voices and writing a whole cast of experiences, 'Seventeen Going Under' feels personal. No longer able to go out and steal stories from down the pub, Sam sings about his own family, his own friends, and seemingly winds himself up into his own anger. If ‘White Privilege’ was the protest song of his debut, ‘Aye’ could absolutely deck it. Demanding you stop what you’re doing and actually listen, you can feel the gritted teeth and clenched fist as Sam takes down our culture of mainstream corruption and its guilty silent witnesses. Rolling from a steady beat verse into a chant worthy chorus, Sam creates a Nick Cave 'Murder Ballads'-esque narrative of anger and hatred without ever needing to slip into fictional violence. The chorus of "I don’t have time for the very few! They never had time for me and you!" could be brushed off as easy leftist rhetoric you’d hear shouted at a Corbyn rally, but instead the repetition of ‘poor hate the poor’ flips it all, falling into a conversation far more intricate than left or right as Sam sings about the topic he’s spoken so passionately about lately – how the Left has abandoned the North East too, and how nothing is ever as simple as good politics and bad politics up here.

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Yet while there’s moments of heavy sadness and anger, he never lets it slip too far. Refusing to create a caricature of the North as grim or in a state of permanent party, he tows a delicate line between the two sides of his coin. Managing to still infuse the album with warm and joy, I think so much of this can be credited to his guitar style. Somewhere between Springsteen and a young lad busking on the corner, the instrumental sounds like something you’d hear in a pub in the best way. Scrappy and raw, it’s never too perfected nor too messy, sounding like a beautiful impromptu jam at a bar’s open mix every time the band comes together with horns. Reminiscent of rainy outdoor festivals in town centres as the sound of local bands spreads and everyone walks with a bit more rhythm, Sam has held onto a bit of self-taught magic, merging lessons taught from some family friend with ones he stole from the greats. Bouncing and fun, tracks like ‘Get You Down’ and ‘Getting Started’ add the spirit of North East nights out, always lively regardless of circumstance. 

To step out of my hometown bias, 'Seventeen Going Under' has something for everyone, touching on every corner of his previous discography from softer ballads to raging indie tracks. For fans of lyric-heavy atmospheric tracks, ‘The Mantra’ and ‘Dying Light’ will soundtrack heartbroken main character moments, while you can add ‘The Leveller’ to going out playlists for a perfect build up to rowdiness. Still with festival worthy tracks, the new album elevates the listening experience beyond the field, experimenting with strings, horns and pianos for a more matured sound as the clashing of sharp violins and shredding guitars is enough to make music snobs embrace the indie golden kid. 

Despite coming only two years after his debut, Sam feels older, more knowledgeable, less scared. You get the sense that he cares less about being likeable or approachable to a wider audience as leaves no room for empty tracks to sing along to with a can of Stella in your hand. Even in the albums more heightened and banging moments, there’s consideration and a message, lyrics worthy of a proper listen. By drawing on his own experience and stories, Sam brings politics to his music in a way that’s more impactful than anything Keir Starmer is doing at the minute. Dedicated to his hometown and all the people still there who are just like him, Sam’s screaming for all of them, making some big and beautiful for all our run down little towns.

8/10 

Words: Lucy Harbron

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