He’s a hero in his hometown, and Geordie singer-songwriter Sam Fender has earned a reputation as guitar music’s next great hope. But you needn’t be a ‘real music’ bore to appreciate this 25-year-old’s talent and ambition. He could have settled into becoming George Ezra 2.0: a nice bland boy with a few solid tunes parped out of a Bluetooth speaker at your Uncle Derek’s 50th birthday barbecue.
Instead his debut album opens with a title track that laments the fates of “kids in Gaza”, before he takes on male suicide (the staggering ‘Dead Boys’) and the grinding pressure of small-town frustration (‘That Sound’, ‘Saturday’ and ‘Leave Fast’).
The latter theme proves fertile ground for Fender, and it’s notable that these are three of the strongest songs on ‘Hypersonic Missiles’. The thunderous drumming on ‘That Sound’; the slowly building chorus of ‘Saturday’; the note of melancholy throughout ‘Leave Fast’, which captures the conundrum of loving aspects of your hometown but knowing it can offer you nothing: these are the reasons he sold out Newcastle’s 4000-capacity Tynemouth Castle in just 40 minutes and has already shifted most of the tickets to his UK tour. It’s embarrassing to talk about class but the fact remains that there are now precious few working-class voices in British rock. In 2019 that’s a role we only really expect UK rap to fulfil.
So Sam Fender’s debut album isn’t particularly voguish – it’s a bloke with a guitar singing about ‘issues’. Those words might make you recoil, but the Geordie Springsteen knows his way around a tune. ‘The Borders’ is a jangling slice-of-life vignette with a fabulously unrestrained sax solo, while ‘Play God’ throbs with brooding menace and a killer palm-muted groove. ‘Dead Boys’, previously included on last year’s EP of the same name, is equally vital in the new context: “Nobody ever could explain all the dead boys in our home town,” he sighs, unable to offer answers but knowing that the male suicide epidemic is terrifying and monumental.
He fares less well when he overreaches and ties himself in knots. ‘White Privilege’ (yes, really) attempts to puncture social media outrage and the “smug liberal[s]” who have written him off, then does a toe-curling 360 as he calls himself out as a mansplaining cog in the patriarchal machine. ‘Call Me Lover’ sounds like what it is: a concession to a major label (he’s signed to Polydor) that requires him to deliver a love song that could nestle next to Ed Sheeran on Heart FM.
Yet ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ mostly hits the notes he longs to convey: it’s by turns euphoric and melancholy, self-deprecating and righteous, untethered and claustrophobic. There are no easy answers here, but Sam Fender’s asking the right questions.