Album Review: Sam Fender – Seventeen Going Under

Sam Fender – Seventeen Going Under

Indie Rock | Heartland Rock


The comparisons to Bruce Springsteen are ubiquitous at this point, though still thoroughly deserved and well intentioned. The thing is, there have been scores of acts that have worn their Springsteen influences on their sleeves over the years, but none of them have felt like they earned a place the Boss’ spiritual successor the way that Sam Fender does. Plenty of acts dish out slices of anthemic heartland rock with splashes of saxophone, but that’s as far as they ever get, only ever perfecting a skin-deep façade without really touching upon the deeper meaning that resonated and endured within the minds of so many. His records are filled with tales of the plights of everyday people. Stories about feeling left behind and forgotten, about struggling to make ends meet, aspiring for a better life but struggling to find a path out from the dark side of town, about how those who’ve never struggled in their lives grind down those below them and somehow get their boots kissed in return. People know sincerity when they hear it, they know when someone is speaking from experience and they can tell when someone stays true to their roots – pair that with a relatable message and you get something that people can really connect with. There’s a level of heart, awareness and compassion to the lyricism that simply can’t be reproduced and bottled up the way the music can. It has to come from someone just as in touch with their roots and with a caring open heart. 

With his sophomore album Seventeen Going Under, Sam Fender really ups the ante with his lyricism. Flitting between bittersweet nostalgia, righteous ire, stark nihilism and intimate moments of vulnerability, this record sets him apart as one of the nation’s premiere songwriters. The incendiary ‘Aye’ deals with the ever growing divide of class warfare, taking aim at the 1% pulling the strings and the petty back and forth finger pointing that does nothing to help the vulnerable being plunged into poverty. There’s an open distain for these mindless squabbles that allow the real architects for the sorry state of the nation to escape unscathed, echoed again on ‘Long Way Off’ with “The hungry and divided play into the hands of the man who put ’em there“. None of this ever borders on feeling like grandstanding from on-high, as it all grows from his own past struggles, and the battles fought by those held dear (“Luck came and died round here, I see my mother, The DWP see a number, She cries on the floor encumbered” on the title track). It’s the voice of someone who sincerely wants to see those around him lifted out of the darkness. 

While it’s great to hear everyday struggles and the current cultural climate being talked about in a way that no one else is really doing, Sam also turns his attention inward to talk in a way that no one else can. This new record feels even more open and personal, digging even deeper on the difficult topics tackled on his debut. Themes of toxic masculinity and a struggle to connect are explored on ‘Get You Down’ and ‘Spit Of You’, while ‘Paradigms’ and album highlight ‘The Dying Light’ deal with the looming shadow of depression and suicide. The latter two tracks in particular host some of Sam’s most striking lines yet, with the frustrated futility of “Every moment in this dark world, I’m terrified, Reaching for a light in the gauntlet of toxic paradigms, Sometimes I wanna die, sometimes” and the dogged resolve of “I’m damned if I give up tonight, I must repel the dying light, For Mum and Dad and all my pals, For all the ones who didn’t make the night” both hitting pretty close to home. 

While the lyrics are the central pillar of Seventeen Going Under, Sam does also increase his sonic palette somewhat. Alongside getting more of what works, the kind of festival ready sax-tinged heartland rock that put him on the map, we also get hints of the dreamy expanse of The War On Drugs on ‘The Last To Make It Home’, Eastern tinged strings adorning the frenetic beat of ‘The Leveller’, and slow-burning piano balladry on ‘The Dying Light’. But sadly there’s one key aspect in which this record falls well short of his debut. Hypersonic Missiles was wall-to-wall hits, full of the kind of anthems that you sing back at the top of your lungs – more hooks than a tackle shop if you will. The follow up lacks any of that immediacy. None of the tracks here are as fun or as memorable, and the closest it comes to providing an engaging chorus is with the youthful escapism of ‘Getting Started’. There’s more substance here for sure, but it requires a greater investment of time and attention to reap the reward. Fingers crossed Sam finds the right balance with his next release, as an album fusing the anthemic hooks of Hypersonic Missiles and the affecting socially conscious lyricism of Seventeen Going Under has the makings of an enduring and career defining classic; and lord knows we’re in need of another working class hero to root for in these twisted times.