Originally, it felt as though Sam Fender’s existence within the crop of emerging UK singer-songwriters was entirely hinged on what he was perceived to be able to do rather than what he’d already proven himself capable of. He was framed as the harder-edged, more woke alternative to an artist like Lewis Capaldi, but when that notion came bundled with a song like Poundshop Kardashians, his biggest song at the time with an unnecessarily snide and ugly tone towards the lower classes he was supposed to be rooting for, it felt like the sort of move that can leave a fairly sizable crater in a career before it’s even begun. And yet, Fender seems to have gotten out unscathed largely, picking up a decent following and releasing a steady stream of singles to the point where there’s a fair bit of hype for this debut album. The question of whether there’s actually something more to this than just another flash-in-the-pan indie-rock solo-fella is still up in the air, but it’s interesting to see that the anticipation for Hypersonic Missiles has remained fairly undented if nothing else.
And to make it clear, when compared to the doughy, blubbering ballads that clogged up Capaldi’s debut, Hypersonic Missiles absolutely runs away as the superior album; it’s occasionally vital and rollicking, and Fender has plenty of the hallmarks of a capable frontman. But mere capability is certainly not rising to the ranks of the ‘Geordie Springsteen’ label that’s been affixed to him, and even if flashes of sonic DNA can sometimes be zeroed in on, Hypersonic Missiles stumbles simultaneously over ambition that tries to do far too much at once, and a hard time chiselling some cogent throughlines from it. It’s rather emphatically resembling of a debut, and while Fender is more than able to distance himself from the indie-rock chaff, the need for greater focus and something of a revamp proves imperative in ensuring that’s always the case.
When Fender is good though, it’s easy to see why he’s been touted as much as he has, breaking away from the restrictive archetype of clean-cut singer-songwriter for something that does feel a bit more classic in its approach. The parallels to Bruce Springsteen are as blatantly obvious as they’ve been made to be from the roiling heartland rock guitars right to the twinkling keys and bursts of saxophone on the title track and The Borders that feel like a royalty cheque just waiting to happen, but it’s pulled off surprisingly well and is definitely one of the more faithful imitations to come out in some time. As for Fender himself, he’s more of a Brandon Flowers-esque character in his vocal timbre, but there are worse comparisons to make when paired with an instrumental style as specific as this, and there’s enough to the strings and synths on a track like Will We Talk? that’s reminiscent of The Killers without outright copying them.
And yet, it’s clear that Fender wants to show off his versatility, something that’s not necessarily the best use of time when things end up so muddled. On one hand, Dead Boys is fairly good as straight-up indie-rock (even if the echoing production here – and indeed, on most of the album – remains an overused tactic to simulate depth in sound), and in general, when Fender keeps the pace up, he at least scrapes across the finish line relatively unscathed. But then there’s the sensitive troubadour side on the acoustic Two People or the shameless Hozier ripoff Call Me Lover, which not only gut the momentum of the album when they appear (and when they and two others just like form the back end of the album, it’s a slow, painful crawl to the end), but also feel distinctly at odds with Fender’s strengths. He’s not exactly got the voice for wistfulness or slower displays of emotion, and when there’s no distinctive energy about them that can’t be garnered from artists who are more skilled at this style, it leaves a considerable chunk of this album as redundant. It stills feels as though Fender hasn’t got a real grip on an artistic identity for himself, even when he ultimately succeeds in what he’s doing, and it’s a clear consequence of trying to do too much at once without the means of achieving it.
And nowhere is that encapsulated more than in the lyrics, both in Fender’s efforts to pull from as many lyrical wells as he can and in a desire to overcompensate whenever possible. The latter is almost perfectly exemplified by White Privilege, where Fender tries to shove all of his woke eggs into one basket by rambling about anything and everything wrong with the world with no connective tissue, before shouldering all the blame himself as a white male in a way that reeks of unearned superiority and back-patting amongst a total mess of a song. It’s not like he’s not capable of addressing these real issues either, as shown by a decent comparison of dystopian governments to the UK’s own on Play God or raising awareness of male depression and suicide on The Borders and Dead Boys respectively. But it’s another example of Fender trying to do too much at once, and rather than knuckling down and keeping his political angle sharp, just taking what he can and snapping any potential throughlines to be found. Saturday feels the most jarring in what effectively feels like a throwaway lad-rock cut repurposed over Hozier’s Jackie And Wilson, but there’s still an over-emphasis on fake depth when looking into one night stands on Will We Talk? or getting out of a small town on Leave Fast that’s so unappealing, and points towards Fender’s main game plan being to curry favour with a more self-serious indie crowd by trying to shunt whatever subjects he can into the same highfalutin framework. It’s patchy and uneven, made all the more obvious by how Fender tries to paper over it to meet his vision of being an old soul that he can’t convincingly keep up.
Thus, for even as much effort goes into trying to like Hypersonic Missiles, it feels like an album that wants to be so much grander that what it can suitably manage. Fender’s desire to be indie’s socially-conscious saviour can come across as condescending and overwrought more often than it should, only made more exasperating by the fact that he proves he can hit a workable middle ground on this very album. It’s why this isn’t necessarily a bad album, because there is a handful of songs that see that vision come together, but when Fender’s ambition is so huge and his creative desire is admirable yet wildly above his station, there’s not a lot that really clicks here either. It’ll definitely go down well, particularly with those who’ve already bought into him being the second coming of Bruce Springsteen, but right now, that feels like empty lip service more than a substantial passing of the torch.
For fans of: Bruce Springsteen, Hozier, Blossoms
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Hypersonic Missiles’ by Sam Fender is out now on Polydor Records.