In the 2019 coming-of-age British movie Blinded by the Light, a young Pakistani boy living in Luton during the Thatcher years finds belonging through the music of Bruce Springsteen. One of the only non-white kids at school, Javed dodges racist comments, has an overbearing father, and is forbidden from writing for the school paper. Among all this hardship, it’s Bruce, perpetually chugging away on the cassette player, who spurs Javed to write an article that changes his life and lifts him from provincial nowhere. The whole film shines with the magic and hope of Springsteen’s reach-for-the-stars music. It’s inspiring, joyous, and yet bittersweet, addressing many of society’s unpleasantries.
If this sounds familiar, you may have listened to the 27-year-old singer-songwriter Sam Fender, whose latest album Seventeen Going Under is a cohesive collection of working-class woes set to sparkly, uplifting pop-rock. Sam Fender’s inspirational touchstones on SGU are apparent, and part of me wants to skim over the Springsteen comparison for this reason. But I can’t. It’s all here. Childhood alienation and struggles with parents. Fist-fights and cheap drinks. Penniless heroes and cold Septembers.
It’s impossible not to imagine Fender finding the same solace in Springsteen’s music as did Javed. And his sophomore album hits many of the same beats as the movie. The singer even described the album as a “coming-of-age movie” in an interview with BBC. Then, it makes sense that Fender is the only musician since Springsteen to pull off the deceptively simple combination of magnetic positivity amidst working-class adversity with such verve and still have it sound ready for festivals and TikTok. Shame on those that sneer at the depth of Fender’s admiration for the Boss. Seventeen Going Under is so stirring that the rusty howls of Johnny “Blue Hat” Davis’ saxophone could engender a steel mill strike. The sustained guitar chords shimmer with the excitement of unlimited potential waiting to be seized.
Fender puts an unselfish spin on the “Let’s get outta this town” trope. When he was 17, his mother was forced to give up her job as a nurse because of a health condition, and as the bills and court tribunals started pouring in, Sam considered selling drugs to support them. “She said the debt, the debt, the debt / So I thought about shifting gear,” he sings on the title track. It’s well-documented that his desire to succeed in music was primarily to get him and his mother out of their acute financial struggles, and this elevates the title track from over-earnestness. It makes us care more.
On “Getting Started”, instead of “shifting gear”, he shifts gears to take a more optimistic run at essentially the same song. Here, again, is the driving motorik beat that doesn’t let up, the glistening chords, an exalting sax solo calling to a future soon to be upon him. It’s about grinding on, not giving up—”I don’t need to be disheartened / I’m just getting started.”
Fender grew up in North Shields, just outside the city of Newcastle. It’s the rust belt of the UK—a cold, industrial region in the northeast of the country with a history of electing left-wing politicians. That background in itself has marked Fender as an English hero to working-class youth, disparager of an elite class that does not represent him (or anyone); rabble-rouser of like-minded rebels. It’s why I warmed to him. Yet the lyrics of “Aye” decry that role—”I’m not a fucking liberal anymore / I’m not a fucking anything anymore.” Fender unleashes his anger here, his voice wailing over an acceleration of rock guitar. “Get You Down” is a sunnier entry—Krautrock with a saxophone, essentially—but the lyrics are dejected: “I catch myself in the mirror / See a pathetic little boy / Who’s come to get you down.”
At the back of Seventeen Going Under, “Paradigms” stands out for its lofty strings and Coldplay-esque stadium sound. “Spit of You” sees Fender ponder his resemblance to his emotionally absent father over a half-time groove and flickering guitars. He expresses concern at having kids with touching sincerity on the closer, aptly named “The Dying Light”. The grandiosity of its extended outro comes off a little like the ending to a Christmas movie with sleeting violins and descending bells.
There’s a lot of light on this record, though, even when Sam wades through the junkyard reality of North Shields life. Ten years after he almost started shifting drugs to support his ‘mam’, this newfound lodestar now has the reach and ability to blind other 17-year-olds on their way under. His thoughtful truisms and sonorous songwriting arm them with the required soundtrack. To quote the man who started it all, “The great challenge of adulthood is holding onto your idealism after you lose your innocence.” Few have risen to this challenge with such success, humility, and brilliance as Sam Fender.