Before 2021, Tyneside singer-songwriter Sam Fender seemed like a fairly middle-of-the-road proposition. His 2019 debut album, Hypersonic Missiles, contained moments of real lyrical depth—notably ‘Dead Boys’, an up-tempo lament about male suicide in a post-industrial town. But there was little otherwise to suggest that Fender was all that different from fellow Brit Award Breakthrough nominees like George Ezra and Ben Howard.
This year, all that changed. With the release of his second album Seventeen Going Under this October, Fender left behind the trappings of corporate pop to become a genuinely meaningful cultural presence—a rarely insightful and likeable everyman who somehow managed to create the most timely, trenchant, and euphoric artwork of the year.
If such a claim seems hyperbolic, consider the rather hopeless cultural moment we find ourselves in as the decade’s convulsive opening montage draws to a close. In benighted, always-ancient Britain, an imperious Tory government seems likely to rule over a virtual managed democracy for the next several years. Meanwhile, Keir Starmer’s supine leadership of the Labour Party has seen the so-called opposition retreat into the moral and political no-man’s-land it occupied at the start of the 2010s.
Both parties are, in their different ways, trying to pretend the last ten years never happened. While Starmer’s Labour attempts to erase the radical youthful experiment of 2015-19 Corbynism from the records, Johnson’s Tories have somehow managed to make large numbers of people forget that they were the party responsible for the social devastation wrought by austerity in the 2010s.
Both parties continue—as establishment parties always have done—to treat marginal corners of society with patronising contempt. Witness Starmer’s brainless ‘pints and flags’ pitch to northern voters in the Hartlepool by-election in May, and Johnson’s determination to reward the disillusioned Red Wall areas who helped him win in 2019 with almost zero investment, let alone political empowerment.
Against this backdrop, the release this autumn of a pop album which gave passionate expression to the lived experience of young, left-wing northern England (Fender played the Corbynite music festival Labour Live back in 2018, and has voiced critical support for the Labour left in interviews) was a massive relief. It was also a morale-raising declaration of autonomy and intelligence for people in the North who have become wearily used to being ignored, misheard, and caricatured by mainstream politicians and journalists—from across the political spectrum—in recent years.
The best tracks on Seventeen Going Under—’Getting Started’, ‘Get You Down’, ‘Spit of You’—combine lyrical eloquence with rousing heartland rock arrangements which pay implicit tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s historical ties to the North East (as well as hailing from Tyneside’s American counterpart the Jersey Shore, the Boss famously gave a $20,000 cheque to striking Durham miners after playing a gig at St James’s Park in June 1985—and he has admitted that his musical ‘class consciousness’ is derived ultimately from 1960s Newcastle band the Animals).
But it is with Seventeen Going Under’s searing title track—released this summer just as people were starting to believe that the worst effects of the pandemic were over—that Fender managed to pull-off a remarkable and moving first masterpiece. Here, the millennial Springsteen persona was augmented with I, Daniel Blake-style realism, to produce a towering monument to a decade of social injustice and building youthful radicalism which the political mainstream seems determined to try to whitewash.
‘Seventeen Going Under’ is a triumphant memento vivere for dark times. Its musical brilliance hinges on an inch-perfect homage to 80s heartland rock (especially, oddly, ‘Walk of Life’ by Dire Straits), a stark, repeating I-V-note vocal motif, a haunting, Johnny Marr-esque guitar intro and a very well-judged glockenspiel part which nods at Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run’. But on top of this musical base—valuable in itself—the song manages to communicate several weighty and emotive socio-political messages at once, always with underlying optimism and resolve.
Apparently the product of Fender’s turn inwards during a period of shielding in the first lockdown—and subsequent therapy sessions—the song works as an avowal of northern identity (with its heavily accented vocals and use of vernacular fragments like ‘bizzies’ and ‘canny chanter’), a prompt for discussions of domestic violence (through the lyric and TikTok meme ‘I was far too scared to hit him / but I would hit him in a heartbeat now’), and a bleak commentary on something like the proverbial toxic masculinity (via lines about snuff videos and ‘the white noise and boys’ boys / locker room talkin’ lads lads’).
But it is in its accurate depiction of the human impact of 2010s austerity on places like Fender’s native North Shields that ‘Seventeen Going Under’ achieves its most powerful emotional climax—and also its crucial underlying spirit of we-have-come-through hopefulness.
As the song builds towards its final chorus, Fender recounts his memories of circa 2011. At this point, the whole titular premise of the track is revealed to be a powerful realist statement—a reference to a period when he and his mother were living in poverty, largely due to the brutal benefits regime of the Tory-Lib-Dem government and its hated Department for Work and Pensions:
She said the debt, the debt, the debt
So I thought about shifting gear
And how she wept and wept and wept
Well luck came and died round here
I see my mother
The DWP see a number
She cries on the floor encumbered
I’m seventeen going under
If there is a better, more painful, more condensed summary of the callousness of British neoliberalism in the times we have all recently lived through, I’m not aware of it.
‘Seventeen Going Under’ is a full-blown socio-political rallying cry which deserves all our attention, respect, and support. It confirms that Sam Fender is now an essential and utterly inescapable figure—for anyone interested in the future of social realist writing in this country, just as much as people in need of uplift from the social paralysis of the early 2020s. Allow yourself the luxury of believing it.