Review by Ally Rosbotham, Arts and Entertainment Editor
A far cry from Sam Fender’s debut “Hypersonic Missiles”, it’s immediately apparent the maturing that Sam has undergone both lyrically and sonically since 2019. Gone are the days of the tongue-in-cheek, upbeat and light-hearted tracks of his debut, including what Sam had only scratched the surface of in terms of lyrical emotional depth. Enter “Seventeen Going Under”, Fender’s sophomore album. He’s older, wiser, and has reached new levels of vulnerability as he looks back in retrospection on his turbulent teens and its effect on him ten years down the line.
“Seventeen Going Under” opens with the title track of the same name. If there’s one thing Sam Fender has had nailed down since day one; it’s a soaring, sing-along tune that is a match made in heaven for a festival, with a punchy drum beat and soulful saxophone topping it all off. “Seventeen Going Under” is exactly that, make no mistake. It is astounding opener which is guaranteed to have you singing along, but listen closer and you’ll hear Sam at his most open, brutally honest and vulnerable. The themes throughout the entire album can almost be encapsulated into this one song, as he reflects on how he’s grown, “I was far too scared to hit him / but I would hit him in a heartbeat now”, feelings of desperation and dealing with a working-class upbringing “She said the debt, the debt, the debt / So I thought about shifting gear / I see my mother, the DWP see a number”. Sam’s growth as an artist; particularly in his song writing; is evident from the opening track, and it only continues to impress as the maturity and vulnerability offered on the album opener continues throughout.
When speaking to Queen’s University alumnus Annie Mac on BBC’s Future Sounds, Sam mentioned that he “started writing about growing up… talk(ing) about the darker times but how that sort of adversity is what carves you into an adult and how it affects the person you are and what you stand for”. He goes on to explain the difficulties of processing such massive events and life-altering moments at such a fragile and changeable time in your life, and how it’s taken until now to look back, process it and gain the ability to reflect on the experiences from an entirely different point of view from where you were at that time. This growth within Sam as a person has translated beautifully into his music and is a fantastic comparison point between “Hypersonic Missiles” and “Seventeen Going Under” as we see him become more open and mature, as he returns to topics he’s previously tackled, but with a more personal perspective. A fantastic example of this is “Dead Boys”, featured on his EP and his debut LP, followed by “The Dying Light” on his second LP. Said to be the sequel to “Dead Boys”, “The Dying Light” takes an autobiographical slant on the issue of growing male suicide rates, seeing Sam open up about coming out the other end of a “tussle with the black dog” as he sang about on Dead Boys. He does so in a hauntingly beautiful way “But I’m damnеd if I give up tonight / I must repel the dying light / For Mam and Dad and all my pals / For all the ones who didn’t make the night”.
With a slight change of pace, “Aye” harks back to his earlier songs like “White Privilege”, “Play God” and “Poundshop Kardashians” with its harder rock sound, politically charged and socially conscious lyrics that Sam Fender sets himself apart for from other young, male Pop/Indie artists currently. His smart and witty style of song writing is on full display; “Makin’ my peace with the internal drag / Makin’ my thesis on the faceless man / He’s got the whole world in his f**king hands”. He name checks figures from Jackie Kennedy to Jesus, as he spirals into a fury filled rant about societies very elite with such infectious passion and energy you can’t help but feel riled up by after listening. Sam certainly doesn’t beat round the bush, as he chants almost hypotisingly “Poor, hate the poor / Hate the poor / Hate the poor” and “I don’t have time for the very few / They never have the time for me and you”. Personally, Sam’s emotion and sheer passion for political issues and current affairs has always hit home for me and translated brilliantly across from performer to listener, coming from the perspective of someone who cares deeply about such issues and appreciates politically aware music. However, with such in depth personal background and vulnerability supporting the context in which “Seventeen Going Under” is set, Sam Fender conveys his political views in a much more convincing manner, coming across as genuine beliefs, rather than that of another self-righteous pop artist looking to win over fans with empty political statements and surface-level social commentary.
“Spit of You” is a major highlight, if not the best song on the album. A simple but beautiful melody gives way to a fantastic instrumental with saxophone, mandolin and a brass section towards end of the song, and that’s not even including the song writing. Sam sings touching lyrics discussing lack of communication and him and his father’s inability to discuss emotions due to toxic masculinity, generational attitudes and their upbringings. Framed within the context of the death of his paternal grandmother and how his relationship with his father changed after the fact “You kissed her forehead / It ran like a tap… / Never seen you like that / Spun me out / Hurt me right through”. Sam said on twitter “if anything it’s a declaration of love” for his father, as he thinks about how “one day that’ll be your forehead I’m kissin’ / And I’ll still look exactly like you”. A hauntingly beautiful track that is most definitely my favourite from “Seventeen Going Under”.
As Sam sings in the bridge of “Paradigms” “No one should feel like this”, in a really fantastic and powerful moment in the albums track list. In one line, Fender provides a perfect summary of the themes on offer throughout “Seventeen Going Under”, from fiery and hard-hitting political statements in “Aye” and “Long Way Off”, the effects of toxic masculinity on “Spit of You”, and heartbreakingly honest displays of introspection and personal growth on a variety of issues on “Good Company”, “Mantra” and “The Dying Light” among so many others. “Seventeen Going Under” is incredibly vulnerable and beautifully human, with Sam conveying his honesty with such care that it allows the masses to relate on a personal level. It’s articulate, emotionally raw and sets a precedent for himself and others, as he continues to mature and grow on both a personal level and as a songwriter.