There’s something unusual about indie-rock newcomer Sam Fender’s first three singles – not one is a love song. In fact, they barely reference sex or love at all, his subjects lean more towards the political. Whilst in itself there’s nothing inherently enlightened about avoiding the topics that dominate the charts, it’s the richness of his narratives coupled with his distinctive, punchy vocals that separates Fender’s creations from a sea of comfier songs.
Signed by the same manager as Ben Howard and hot off the back of a summer of festival slots, Fender looks set to reach the status of the artists he’s supported; including Hozier, George Ezra and Declan McKenna. To kick off this inevitable ascension, released a few months apart over 2017 were three singles, marked by their intensity both lyrically and instrumentally.
A stop-start tendency and ultra-compressed guitar notes creating a sort of chugging, both tension-building effects giving way to drawn out A cappella notes – features which are most present in Fender’s debut track ‘Play God,’ released in March 2017. ‘Play God’ describes a Dystopia overlooked by an all-seeing “keen eye,” warning that “no matter who you are or where you’ve been/ he is watching from a screen.” Whether this is a throwback to Orwellian literature or a criticism of contemporary government, a listener can merely speculate, but the image created is vivid – a painting of an entire world. Mixed by Barny Barnicott (Arctic Monkeys) and recorded – (as revealed to Kate Lawler on Virgin Radio) – in a garden shed.
The act of a man speaking for a woman can not often be described as Feminist. “I am a woman,” claims Fender, speaking for his heroine in the July release ‘Greasy Spoon.’ His character’s portrayal is not, as we have heard many times, a view of a woman through the prism of the male singer’s affection, or a description of physical charms, but rather a mostly third person narrative description of her professional life, commute and daily struggles. The story is hers. Fender has no fictional involvement other than to hear her through the walls. Of course under a different spin, Fender’s portrayal could so easily be criticised – “But it’s a woman’s story! In a man’s voice! Only a woman can say what it’s like to be a woman!”(?) But this snapshot of a life spent in discomfort is triumphant in its empathy and relatability – (“She hardly breathes/ when you’re in her/ breathing space”) and the tackling, itself, of a subject as contentious as everyday sexism is exactly what makes the portrayal brave. ‘Greasy Spoon’ earned the title of BBC Introducing Track Of The Week, and deservedly so.
Musically, the introduction to ‘Greasy Spoon’ is foreboding. The vocal delivery is at times sharp and satisfyingly punchy –“Knock/ Back/ Black/ Coffee,” and at others drawn out and soaked in something that sounds like frustration. The story and backing come together to form the impression that something is about to snap, drums bubbling over when the lyrics speak of hardship and anger: “She brushes it off/ Like she always does.”
Fender’s most recent track ‘Millennial‘ is as witty and socially aware as the two that it follows, parodying the portrayal of young people as gullible, media worshipping fools – quick to swallow whatever they’re fed online – “I’m a millennial/ I’m young and dumb” he teases.
These songs are not easy listening, to be appreciated fully they ask something of the listener, in a charming indie voice, familiar and engaging enough to draw focus to the intimidatingly controversial.
Sam Fender joins the line-up for Live at Leeds’ ‘Ones to Watch’ showcase, taking place in the city on Saturday 25th November. Tickets are available here.