by Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya

tw: mentions of suicide

In recent years, the indie-rock revival has gained traction across the UK, spurning artists such as Circa Waves, The Magic Gang, Sea Girls and countless other bands and solo artists with catchy, accessible lyrics and melodies against guitar-heavy backgrounds. I will fully admit to being an indie fan at heart; these artists generally make up a large proportion of my ‘heavy rotation’ on Spotify at any given moment. But the genre can’t always be credited with much lyrical originality, or indeed, with much engagement with the world beyond the singers’ own personal dilemmas and often relentless self-deprecation.

What intrigued me about Sam Fender was not that his lyrics entirely departed from these themes, but that they are often underscored by a political message set against a wider backdrop than simply personal experiences. In his recent single titled ‘Hypersonic Missiles’, Fender sings: ‘God bless America and all of its allies/I’m not the first to live with wool over my eyes/I am so blissfully unaware of everything/Kids in Gaza are bombed, and I’m just out of it’. These lyrics deftly combine the indulgent self-reflection characteristic of modern indie with the deeply disturbing realities of global politics, two aspects which are linked by Fender’s (somewhat paradoxical) recognition of himself as ‘blissfully unaware of everything’. Through this personal slant, Fender makes such political engagement accessible to indie listeners that may never have had a particular stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict, or may not even know where Gaza is. Sure, it may not be outright protest music, but Fender’s position – following his disillusionment with the American nation – is made clear through these lyrics and his listeners are undoubtedly encouraged to adopt it. 

Through his clear awareness of American governmental political responsibility, Fender tends towards confronting these forces rather than resorting to sentimental and simplistic portrayals of tragedy as isolated and blame-free. Moreover, his emphasis on the concrete roots of such problems – i.e. governmental power structures, and ‘the corporate machine’ which fuels their violence, contrasts refreshingly with the trend of the vaguely existential contemplation of impending world doom. This has been a pervasive theme in rock and indie music for a while now, but usually without addressing any specific political phenomena of the era.

Sam Fender at Chase Park Festival 2013

Sam Fender at Chase Park Festival 2013 (Source: Matt Horne CC BY-NC 2.0)

Other tracks bring out Fender’s politics in more directly personal ways. Last year’s single ‘Dead Boys’, a song more solely centred on tragedy, is concerned with the high rate of male suicide in Fender’s native Tyneside, a question which he laments in the hook: ‘Nobody ever could explain/all the dead boys in our hometown’. However, once again, the song’s subtext is more radical than the lyrics appear to be: Fender does in fact offer perfectly clear explanations rooted in the issues of widespread mental health problems, toxic masculinity and a lack of opportunity. He sings: ‘We all tussle with the black dog/ Some out loud and some in silence/ Everybody round here just drinks/ Cause that’s the culture’. These lyrics are a stark reminder that not all suffering is evident or vocalised, and of the difficulty – faced particularly by young men in Britain today – of breaking out of damaging cycles of drinking and depression. Through solemn vocals muffled by instrumental backing, Fender paints a haunting picture of a contemporary, deprived British town, fractured by the endemic loss of life among a section of its population, and caught in a permanent cycle of mourning which feels almost violent: ‘The anniversaries are short lived/But they come back around at a breakneck speed’. The root causes of death remain static over the years, gradually taking more and more lives, as Fender’s grieving vocals repeat: ‘All the dead boys in our hometown’ until the song’s gradual close.

These themes can be found across Fender’s repertoire: ‘Friday Fighting’ explicitly situates the culture of small-town violence, with which Fender grew up, within a context of ‘toxic masculinity’, while ‘Leave Fast’ focuses more generally on the state of these towns, with ‘poor souls sleeping on shop front doors … Forgotten by the government’. If the blame wasn’t directed clearly enough in ‘Dead Boys’, it’s pretty unambiguous here exactly where the responsibility for such a crisis lies.   

Sam Fender’s songs are highly and cynically contemplative, far from revolutionary or even inciting action […], but they do indicate the potential for indie music to convey radical messages about the distribution of power in the world.

Fender deals with other related aspects of the current neoliberal capitalist scene in ‘Poundshop Kardashians’, a damning indictment of people’s unhealthy preoccupations with celebrities and the general ridiculousness of certain public figures (e.g. ‘There’s an orange faced baby at the wheel of the ship’). Whilst this track is apparently less grave and more witty in tone than ‘Dead Boys’, the lyrics become progressively darker and veer towards similar themes, as the ‘we’ of the song – the general public – become sinister: ‘[We] grab ourselves a pitchfork and go in for the kill/Together light vigils/ Eulogize them on the Internet when they top themselves/ When they couldn’t take it no more’. Despite his overarching focus on the lives of ordinary people, Fender here exposes an equally common and devastating version of this trajectory among those consistently under the public gaze, of declining mental health leading to suicide, and the irony and shallowness of public response to such tragedies. 

So maybe we’re no longer in the seventies, when well-known musicians expressing radical political sentiments was a regular occurrence, but politics might just be starting to seep back into the mainstream of music, in fact extending beyond the few explicitly political household names (think Stormzy or Lilly Allen). Sam Fender’s songs are highly and cynically contemplative, far from revolutionary or even inciting action – he declares, ‘I have no answers, only questions/ So don’t ask a thing’ about these political issues on ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ – but they do indicate the potential for indie music to convey radical messages about the distribution of power in the world. For staunchly left-wing indie listeners like me, that’s a positive step for a genre rarely associated with political messaging.

Featured image: Matt Horne (CC BY-NC 2.0, no changes made)

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