Politics is personal for Sam Fender: New Frame
Sam Fender’s success at the Brit Awards is as much a celebration of the young singer-songwriter as it is an acknowledgment of who and what he chooses to showcase.
“Do you want to make us sad on a Friday afternoon? my mother wails from the driver’s seat, rising above the cathartic outpouring of Sam Fender on The dying light. “I will never understand why you Choose to lower your mood. Please play happy music.
Under the suspicion of toxic positivity, I guess there is some truth in his words. At the tender age of 27, Fender has endured a lifetime of hardship. He saw his once estranged mother living with a chronic illness and battled one of his own. He grew up in North Shields, a working class town in the North East of England, who suffered from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. And he struggled with strained interpersonal relationships, both family and social.
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Each of them alone would be enough to make the best of us withdraw into ourselves, sink into resentment and loneliness. Not Fender, however. Transforming those experiences is what catapulted him to success at the Brit Awards – winning fan-voted Best Rock/Alternative Act and being nominated for Artist of the Year and Album of the Year – and soon to be on the Glastonbury Festival stage.
seventeen below is a manifestation of his refusal “to go easy on this good night”.
A feeling of triumph
The album is Fender’s journey into itself, and it’s the opener and title track that tell us that for Fender, the old adage is true: what’s past is prologue. The evolution of his anger – from unbridled outrage at age 17 (“I spent my teenage years enraged,” he sings) to a sense of purpose channeled at 27 – is underscored by the melody’s beating pulse in about a minute. Fender experiments with dynamics in this way throughout the album, oscillating between thrilling highs and sentimental lows, to keep its message front and center and evoke the air of triumph that pervades the album.
However, you have to listen carefully to fully appreciate this triumph. The title of the album is the first clue that for much of seventeen belowFender is on point.
“I have to admit I’ve run out of brilliant ideas to keep hell at bay,” he confesses on The dying light, accompanied by delicate and stripped-down piano keys. There’s a sense that for Fender, a near-death experience – his life-threatening illness – drove him to get the most out of life. And writing meaningful and relevant lyrics is an integral part of that. He hasn’t completely outgrown any of his fights, but beneath his pain lies a trace of hope. “Reaching for a light in a gauntlet of toxic paradigms,” he sings on Paradigms.
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The artist imposes a monumental task on himself by entering the musical Sistine Chapel which is located at the crossroads of song and protest. Yet, we know for certain that it’s not the enchanting melody mixed with universal messaging that characterizes Marvin Gaye. What’s going onBillie Holiday’s Torturing Reverie strange fruit or the delicate but powerful A change is comingSam Cooke’s anthem for the downtrodden around the world.
Fender’s is closer to the political rock defined by the counterculture embodied in songs such as John Lennon’s To imagine or records in the same vein as those of Bob Dylan Times are changing. It would be truer to say that Fender is closer to the anti-establishment punk championed by the Sex Pistols, or closer to the imitation of his idol Bruce Springsteen. But still, none of these feel right.
Moments of technical genius stand out on seventeen below, but it’s clear that Fender’s price isn’t the experimental variety. That many of his songs mirror each other seems intentional. Fender identifies its style as fast-paced electric guitar and rhythm paired with snare drum. He strips down his sound to make way for the real purpose of the album, his lyrics. Is it for better or for worse that it moves away from the emphasis on balance displayed by its predecessors and uses the instrumentation almost exclusively as an accessory? Is it to his honor or to his detriment that Seventeen below, in its most expressly political form, privileges the message to the music, privileges the explicit to the art?
He was noted about the two Fender albums that he succeeds when he lets personal experience guide narrow introspection, and fails when he branches outward. Yet creating such a dichotomy is a mistake. For Fender, the slogan defended by this now famous generation of feminists is true: the personal is political. In his case, the opposite is more accurate: the political is personal.
There is no boundary between the anecdotal and the sociopolitical on seventeen below. Fender’s feelings of helplessness and despair over his mother’s condition are simultaneously an expression of his disillusionment with the inhumanity that runs through British public bureaucracy. “I see my mother, the DWP sees a number”, he sings. The acute abandonment and alienation it conveys – “I am alone here even though I am not physically” – are inextricably linked to its proclamation that “the left has abandoned the working class”, that the “they” that he castigates Always, that infamous 1%, has ostracized him individually as much as they have ostracized the 99% in which he includes himself: “We are the scum who have overstayed our welcome.” And finally, that the bullies he’s finally worked up the courage to stand up to – “But I’ll punch him in the blink of an eye now” – are the evocation of a bankrupt government made up of bigoted, self-absorbed, ineffectual people. .well, bullies.
The little guy “betrayed by all the headlines” on Paradigms is the same little guy “bleeding for a caricature of a salesman from the 1950s”. He is as much an individual as he is proud to shake hands and declare “we are the 99%”. Moreover, Fender is him too. This is perhaps its real mission, to humanize. Giving a sound and a face to all those that “the fewest” would prefer to ignore, making his mother more than a number.
Scattered among these attempts are moments of musical ingenuity. Saxophone meets electric guitar for the second half of Mantra and the jukebox atmosphere of the 1980s Last to go home shine. At its best, Fender weaves these two characteristics together as a way to ground us in reality. We nod and stamp our feet to deal with the ills of society: who is affected and who is guilty.
A lesson for the young
There is no doubt that Fender is gifted. Electrifying guitar riffs enliven the album and its vocal range impresses, making its emotions palpable. But where there was prescience in the Fender writing Hypersonic missiles – “My mind is still troubled by where I’ve been and where I’m going” – there’s maturity in this Fender, and both are born out of its most enduring quality, its self-awareness. In the album’s most impassioned lament, he boldly declares, “I’m not fucking anything or anyone.”
Fender was born out of a need to inundate its songs with buzzwords or portray itself as the omniscient paragon of political correctness that has shrouded most of Hypersonic missiles. The Fender we find is willing to admit that he has not “been the best of men. Morality is an evolving thing. He is sufficiently introspected – “picking fights with my reflection” – to position himself in the world around him. More importantly, he kept his desperation from getting the better of him. In his own words, “I find myself in the mirror”.
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Music has this rare quality of being both self-sufficient and a means to an end (I listen to Otis Redding for different reasons than I listen to A Tribe Called Quest or Corrine Bailey Rae). I will keep listening to Sam Fender seventeen below because it reminds me “never to get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around me”, to use this charge laid out by Arundhati Roy. The urgency in Fender’s sound, powerfully accompanied by bold affirmations, is a way of keeping me (us) from becoming desensitized or slipping peacefully into acquiescence. Fender keeps you from pretending “you didn’t know”. Isn’t it fitting that his lyrics are used to teach English to grade 9 students at his alma mater, Whitley Bay High School? That his music resonates with young audiences is a testament to the fact that Fender gives of himself and his own experience in his music to express a larger, collective voice, and that for him the two are linked.
Unfortunately for Fender, there’s no angel that drops down to Lothian and “fixes the problems it can’t fix”. But perhaps, thanks to musicians like Fender who refuse to turn away from the world – to separate art and society, the personal and the political – more people will be spurred to action.
Fender has time to perfect its craft. What matters is where he looks, with whom and what he cares about. It cannot be repeated. All we can hope is that while he sings Angel in Lothianhe continues to “trust” her eyes.