The “hypersonic missiles” in the title song of Sam Fender’s terrific debut refer to a weapon that may wipe out mankind, but the phrase serves equally well as a metaphor for Fender’s oeuvre, where every song bristles with explosive ideas.
Fender deservedly won the Brits Critics’ Choice award this year. What a joy to find a young British guitar-playing singer-songwriter wrestling with big issues of the world at large, and not just concocting pop from his love life. Despite his industry endorsement, there is something reassuringly gnarly about Fender, a 25-year-old who rose to prominence singing haunting ballad Dead Boys, lamenting the high suicide rate of young men in his Northumberland hometown of North Shields.
The patina of life in dead end towns weaves through bittersweet narratives studded with closely observed detail. Whether it is the brutal portraits of family and marriage in The Border and Two People (“Children raising children/ The same mistakes keep building”) or the stunted romances of Will We Talk and Call Me Lover, his loyalties are intriguingly divided. Leave Fast is a gorgeous cry for escape that wrestles with affection for the “boarded up windows on the promenade/ The shells of old night clubs and halfway houses.” When Fender wails “leave fast… or stay forever” you are not sure which option he would really choose.
The tension of opposing feelings occupying the same song is a trick Bruce Springsteen is adept at, and his influence runs strong in Fender’s working-class blues, although sometimes at second hand. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Fender favours electric over acoustic guitars and when solos explode across taut drum patterns the resemblance to Springsteen-influenced US rockers The War On Drugs and The Killers can get a little close for comfort.
Yet unlike the old boss, Fender is young enough to be immersed in the life he documents, not writing at a nostalgic remove. When he rises to longing high notes on weekend anthem Saturday, you can really feel him straining at the leash. I think Springsteen would approve.
Fender frequently addresses his own youth and naivety, avoiding cheap finger-pointing. His generation’s political confusion is laid out wittily on White Privilege, in which he coruscates his own contradictions (“The patriarchy is real, the proof is in my song/ I’ll sit and mansplain every detail of the things it does wrong”).
For Fender, escape from life’s hard choices lies in music itself. On the anthemic That Sound, he roars that “it’s the greatest revelation/ The only thing that keeps me grounded.” A percussive whammy and explosive electric rush follow each proclamation of “I need to hear that sound!” I know exactly how he feels.
Hypersonic Missiles is released by Polydor on September 13