EP Review: Sam Fender - 'Dead Boys EP'
With his new EP, ‘Dead Boys’, Sam Fender will finally start getting the recognition that he wholeheartedly deserves.
Sam Fender, from North Shields, just outside Newcastle, has had a good time of it the last few years. He has landed solo tour support slots with Catfish and The Bottlemen, Ben Howard, George Ezra, Hozier, and Nick Mulvey, to name a few, with a support slot for Blossoms to come in December at London’s O2 Academy Brixton, as well as embarking on two large tours over the UK and Europe this year. His debut single, ‘Play God’ — a powerful and genuinely stunning tune — has hit three million streams on Spotify, as well as joining the soundtrack for FIFA 19. He has had festival appearances all around Europe, including a mid afternoon slot on the Festival Republic stage at Reading and Leeds, and joining the line-up for Mumford and Sons upcoming Gentlemen of the Road stopover in New Zealand in January 2019; with the songs on his new EP, he’s set to soar to new heights.
The EP opens with ‘Dead Boys - Prelude’: a primarily instrumental track, intrinsically similar to the eponymous hit single ‘Dead Boys’ yet resolutely a separate, distinct entity. It is composed fundamentally of the same foreboding notes as Dead Boys, with the definitively haunting sound of strings and Sam Fender near-indecipherably chanting over the top. Ultimately, it works to set the scene for the EP. It sets up the melancholy and emotionally charged message behind ‘Dead Boys’, and leads perfectly into it. More than this, however, the chanting, both intimately familiar and incomprehensible, seems to reflect the pain that Sam Fender is trying to his express: the voice, constantly trying to be heard, drowned out by the sounds around him, most notably moments of artificial, electronic bursts, much like how emotions are drowned out by the artificial zeitgeist of superficiality, hiding behind the perfect selfie or social media post.
The prelude perfectly leads into the title track, ‘Dead Boys’, both musically and thematically. ‘Dead Boys’, likewise, opens with the simple instrumental sound of a guitar, before breaking into Sam Fender’s emotional cries. It slowly gains momentum, surging forward through the pain: it deals explicitly with male suicide and mental health issues, particularly with the psychological damage inflicted by the stigma of masculine stoicism, of buried and unconfronted emotions. In it, you can undoubtedly sense the pain that Sam himself has lived through; the song was written from Sam’s own experience of losing a close friend, as well as the number of male suicides arising from his home town. The use of ‘our home town’, rather than my, seems to point to the bigger problem, of suicide in general. It resulted in an outpouring of emotions from his fanbase, as it should; the song is stirring and etched throughout with pain, yet offers the promise of hope, of trying to fight the epidemic. The song starts slow and steadily builds into a stunning crescendo, with repeated yells of ‘all the ‘Dead Boys in our home town’ seeming to suggest a physical need for his pain to be heard, rather than being drowned out as the topic of mental health often is. Well earned recognition for the song comes in the form of a performance on the prestigious ‘Later... with Jools Holland’, as well as being Annie Mac’s Hottest Record, and despite the physicist inside of me clamouring that centrifugal force isn’t a real thing, it is a tremendous song.
After ‘Dead Boys’ comes ‘Spice’, referring to the eponymous drug epidemic which has been striking up and down across the country, resulting in severe and unpredictable side effects or even death. The music structure of the song manages to echo the message; the verses are almost drone-like and monotonous: good, but very similar to each subsequent line... until ‘he loses his will to live/ but finds something better’, at which point the song explodes into the chorus, with Sam clamouring that you should ‘spice up your life’. The verses reflect the mundanity and repetition of a directionless life, and therefore reflects the appeal of drugs being used to escape it. As such, the musical droning of the verses enables the lyrical excellence to shine through. “It’s about a boy who was really talented, clever and ended up destroying his life”, he says: the song acts as a warning to the terrifying ways in which spice, or drugs in general, ruins lives.
After ‘Spice’ is ‘Poundshop Kardashians’, which in my opinion is the best track on the EP. Scratch that, I think it’s his best song yet. My first impression was how similar it, particularly the second verse, seemed musically to The War On Drugs, (particularly ‘Red Eyes’) a band which Sam Fender has said before that he would love to work and tour with. That’s not to say it’s in any way inauthentic to Sam’s sound; instead, it’s taking the best parts of their music and assimilating it into his already monumentally good style, and it works perfectly. Effortlessly, almost. A song about “the stupid stuff we idolise in the western world”, failing to “understand the world we live in” and trying to comprehend the vacuous and superficial celebrity worshipping — presumably with emphasis on the Kardashian family, given the title — it’s immediately off to a strong sense, with roaring guitar over drums and Sam Fender’s crooning vocals, before the explosive chorus. The chorus can seem slightly chaotic at times, but that only adds to the appeal; it seems to refuse to adhere to the stereotypical, expected sound and therefore further emphasises Sam Fender’s unique style of brilliance. It’s the stand-out track on the already amazing debut EP.
After is ‘That Sound’, the most recent single released, a song about how music was always his escape; despite ‘loaded vampires... sniff[ing] up residue’, and ‘green eyed beasts’, that sound — ie. music — kept him afloat. Music “pulls me out of the shit every time”, he says; it keeps him in line and focussed. If that’s the reason he is able to keep releasing new music, long may it last. The song starts slowly, with a thirty second instrumental intro, before Sam’s voice joins the fray.
The chorus of ‘That Sound’ is probably the most aggressive musically and the most anthemic lyrically; ‘it’s the only thing that keeps me grounded’ transitioning into a somehow endearing cacophony of instruments which is wholeheartedly made for live performances.
Finally, ‘Leave Fast’. Different to the already released version, this version is thirty-seven seconds longer, yet retains the intimately acoustic nature of the single version. It comes across as an almost love song to his hometown of North Shields, a place that he obviously cares about, but the song acknowledges the ‘mass of filth and rubbish’, the empty ‘shells of old nightclubs’ and ‘watching people die in the cold’. The lyrics bring the hometown to life and, despite using his music to escape, which resulted in “butchered A-levels”, as he puts it, the song reflects a sense of nostalgia, revisiting the town that he once felt “trapped” in, yet loved nonetheless.
The song, for the most part features his vocals over a guitar: live, it’s played without the band, and is the perfect song to show off his powerful, soulful voice, which are usually overshadowed by the overarching music. The extra thirty-odd seconds comes in the form of an almost contemplative strumming of an electric guitar, which only adds to the overall nostalgia of the piece and seems to round it off perfectly, both the song and the EP as a whole.
Overall, a genuinely tremendous body of work.
Words by James O’Sullivan
Sam Fender’s EP is out now, and you can catch him live at the following dates -
3rd December – Academy, Glasgow (w/ Blossoms) SOLD OUT
13th December – O2 Academy Brixton, London (w/ Blossoms) SOLD OUT
25th February – Gorilla, Manchester SOLD OUT
28th February – Electric Brixton, London