Writer Imogen Hay examines the “chocolate selection box of Sammy Fender” in this insightful review of his anticipated debut.
This “chocolate selection box of Sammy Fender” is not the safe light-hearted singer/songwriter debut that we have come to expect. It also isn’t the highly manufactured, media safe press packet that many young pretty boys release to the adoring screams of teenage girls. It is instead the honest and often naive political question which is very much needed right now.
As I’m writing this, Sam Fender’s debut album Hypersonic Missiles has just reached number one in the album charts, which after all the research I’ve done on Sam is so lovely to hear. Especially considering that the album was made in Sam’s hometown, in a homemade studio on a small budget and using many of the original demos made when Fender was only 17.
The first I heard of Sam Fender was his single Dead Boys, an honest and heart-breaking look at the rates of male suicide, specifically in communities like the North East. Dead Boys was a track that touched me personally because of my own small-town background, as he sings “nobody ever could explain all the dead boys in our hometown”. Songs like this are important because of that ability to relate to people and to contribute to a culture that is more accepting of these difficult conversations, especially among working class men.
The new album opens with a nihilistic love song about the impending destruction of the earth by hypersonic missile, but Hypersonic Missiles also explores the patriarchy, white privilege, mental health, poverty and domestic violence. No song is a throwaway, even Saturday tackles a lot more than just dreaming of the weekend. It speaks about living as a wage slave wishing for better: “overtired, overworked, underpaid, under pressure”.
Many of Fender’s songs lull you into a false sense of simplicity because they are mostly upbeat, but his lyrics are so insightful and beautiful that taking anything he writes at face value would be a mistake. One of my favourites, Will We Talk? could easily be seen as just a song about hook-up culture, but it goes deeper: “there’s no romance, sprawled out across the couch, can’t even make his fucking face out”.
That Sound is a celebration of Sam’s love for music, as much as he struggles with the pull back from home, political and societal pressure: that sound is “the only thing that keeps me grounded”. His love of music is so central to this album, with the instrumentation often paying homage to Springsteen among others, while a saxophone is included to hark back to the nostalgia of music he used to love.
I really appreciate his mix of released and unreleased material. I hadn’t heard his older music Call Me Lover, Two People or You’re Not The Only One, but by using original demos and stripped back instrumentation, the impressive naivety of this young songwriter is highlighted. Lyrics about the helpless feeling of hearing domestic violence through the walls, and the cycles of abuse and poverty felt in this “one-horse town” are so beautifully set out by someone who wrote it when he was so young.
The media has been very quick to brand Fender as “the next Buckley or Springsteen” but I don’t believe this is fair. Fender has a haunting voice and amazing range, like Jeff Buckley and he certainly pays homage to Springsteen with many of his songs. But not every working-class singer-songwriter is the same and lives to replicate each other. We shouldn’t need to make comparisons to justify liking him, we like him cos’ he’s good.
The album ends on a live track very deliberately: after touring and performing for so many years it’s only appropriate to include an element of that, and in a way strip it back to the beginning of his career. He is live, on his own, singing a song that is empowering and raw. He states who he is, what he thinks and what he does. This is the way to make your voice heard for the first time.
Of course, a debut is never so cohesive, never so perfect. Fender admits that he chose the title because it sounded cool, didn’t plan anything specific with the ordering of the tracks but just wanted to make the statement he does and release this back catalogue. A debut always has the rare quality of compiling years of graft in the earlier and often rougher stages of the music industry before the commercial glam that inevitably follows.
I hope Fender’s voice becomes even cleverer and braver with future releases, but I really hope he isn’t forced to become too refined. We need more musicians that aren’t scared to call things out, express their vulnerabilities and admit they don’t know the answers, instead choosing to ask harder questions.
Aside from that, all I want is for my flatmates to stop ripping the piss out of me putting this album on aux-cord all the time.