The loss of youth and young manhood and the trials of adolescence have provided ample inspiration for musicians since forever. The latter, in particular, has been well encapsulated by US rockers Sharon Van Etten (‘Seventeen’, 2019) and Olivia Rodrigo (‘Brutal’, 2021) in recent years, but the former is one that Sam Fender has mastered like few others. It’s a topic that requires a delicate approach; the transition from boy to man is assumed to be dominated by bravado, and often overshadows causes that need a closer look.
The opening title track of the Newcastle rocker’s second album, ‘Seventeen Going Under’, is one of the year’s best. Is it a brutal, brilliant portrait of Fender’s youth that’s full of violence (“fist fights on the beach, the bizzies round us up”), male mental health (“I spent my teens enraged / Spiralling in silence”) and familial anguish (“I see my mother / The DWP see a number”). To chop up and highlight just a few lines is to do the song a great disservice; it is a flawless piece of writing and requires your undivided attention.
His debut album ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ scratched gently at the surface of a songwriter of real detail and skill, but second time around he digs real deep for a wiser, weightier record stuffed with sax-soaked rock epics that touch on life and death, love and heartbreak, rage and regret. Many of you, perhaps, will recognise the flashpoints and relationships he speaks of as your own.
In a recent NME cover story, Fender said that this reflective period was influenced by the pandemic and his own experience shielding due to a previous serious illness: “It was such a stagnant time that I had to go inwards and find something, because I was so uninspired by the lifetime we’re living in,” he said. It forced him to reconsider why certain formative “stories keep appearing” and the humbling process of growing up. Young men think they know the world, but they rarely take time to get to know themselves.
You can pinpoint the stories that have shaped Fender the most, particularly the father and son dynamic on ‘Spit Of You’, where he ruminates on the passing of his grandmother and his father’s reaction to that seismic loss. He recognises both their flaws (“smashing cups off the floor / And kicking walls through / That’s me and you”) and compassion: “you kissed her forehead”, he remembers, knowing that “one day that’ll be your forehead I’m kissing / And I’ll still look exactly like you”. Finding common ground to communicate doesn’t come easy to sons with fraught relationships, though. “I can talk to anyone / I can’t talk to you”, Fender sighs in the chorus, no resolution in sight.
Defeatism rears its head often in Fender’s writing – he knows what he’s doing is deviant or flawed – but to point them out is not a display of machismo and cockiness, instead highlighting his own remorse. On ‘Mantra’ he flags that he’s “trying to be better but I fall at every hurdle” and is unable to shake the pressures of social media; there’s a knowingness in ‘Last To Make It Home’ also: “I am a soundboard to some / With myself I am not so forgiving”. A ray of hope occasionally breaks through, as on The Boss-aping album closer ‘Dying Light’, but it does so with a certain dimness: “I must admit I’m out of bright ideas to keep the hell at bay”
The world-weariness comes with slightly less conviction on the politically-motivated ‘Aye’ and ‘Long Way Off’, falling into the trap of “pointing at stuff angrily”, as he described some of his debut album to NME. But it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom; two of the finest, funniest songs from this purple patch, ‘Howdon Aldi Death Queue’ and ‘The Kitchen’, exist solely as B-sides. It’s a testament to the conviction of this project that he can leave these songs out.
The musical reference points are similar to his those of debut – The War On Drugs, the aforementioned Bruce Springsteen – but the connection with producer and confidant Bramwell Bronte grows only stronger throughout this album. There are shades of Echo and The Bunnymen on the string-laden ‘The Leveller’, and The National on the stuttering drumbeat of ‘Paradigms’; his voice has the space to soar on these darker, grandiose compositions. This appears to be a musical friendship that could run and run for years.
If ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ was the sound of a young boy kicking out at the world, ‘Seventeen Going Under’ sees Fender realise that it can kick back a lot harder, and he counts every blow and bruise. But he seems to have found that time passes and that most wounds – even the deepest – will eventually heal, if he can allow them to.
Release date: October 8
Record label: Polydor