29 January 2024

Marx, Freud and Darwin - an aphorism

Marx, Freud and Darwin are excellent physicians. The terrible mistake lies in making any one of them into a metaphysician.

17 January 2024

Hypersonic Missiles and the millennial desire/inability to believe

My Anglophilia has been notably muted of late. I hope my reasons for this will not be taken as petty. On an external level, I simply find vanishingly little to admire about modern Britain: which still somehow allows Prince Andrew to walk around free, which persists under the political ‘leadership’ of Rishi Sunak, and which continues under the cultural sway of the likes of Piers Morgan and Jo Rowling (whose politics have become predictable, boring, and almost a sad self-caricature at this point). And on a personal level, I’m still struggling with some of my own psychosexual hang-ups, with which my early Anglophilia seems to have been very deeply entangled. My Anglophilia has been battered and bruised, certainly. It’s a lot quieter than it used to be. But it’s still there and runs quite deep.

And one Briton whom I am quite happy to celebrate for his artistic and cultural achievements is rock musician Sam Fender.
Maybe we were born and raised too cynical;
In the wake of a miracle, we’d never believe.
You impersonate the seasons—your gold autumnal haze,
But something dies inside you when winter rears its face.
Fender’s got two studio albums out now, Hypersonic Missiles and Seventeen Going Under—both of which are tremendous testaments to the enduring appeal and rejuvenation of rock ‘n’ roll music generally. But it’s Hypersonic Missiles in particular that I want to focus on here.

Hypersonic Missiles is deceptively simple in terms of its musical character. His music has a certain transatlantic appeal, with roots rock, blues rock and American heartland rock written deeply into its figurative DNA… not surprising when one considers that Sam Fender considers Born to Run- and ‘Dancing in the Dark’-era Bruce Springsteen to be one of his formative influences, along with soul legends Otis Ray Redding and Donny Hathaway. There’s nothing pretentious about Fender—no progressive time-signature shenanigans, no operatic frills. His music is proudly and defiantly a stylistic throwback, while at the same time retaining its own deeply British independent character.

With such a melodic character, one might expect the lyrics of his songs to follow a similarly straightforward direction: rebellion, outlaw ballads, life on the open road. No such matter. Fender’s lyrics are deeply introspective and even philosophical. My intention here, actually, is to provide Hypersonic Missiles as a poetic-lyrical companion piece to my friend Daniel Schwindt’s There Must Be More than This. These two works raise many of the same questions, raise many of the same cries of internal pain, struggle over many of the same social and even religious problems.

This may seem an odd pairing. Sam Fender is, like many Britons of his age, agnostic—when asked if he was religious, his simple and immediate answer was ‘no’, even though half of his family is religious. His experience of being at a religious camp ended in a sacrilegious prank he and a friend played on the camp wardens that got them expelled. By contrast, Daniel Schwindt has been a committed Catholic traditionalist for as long as I’ve known him. Politically, Fender has been a bog-standard British leftist for a long time, Corbyn supporter and so forth. ‘Play God’, the first single released from this album, was largely greeted as a dystopian anti-Trump anthem, for example—though recently he’s made some noises about being disenchanted with the left. Schwindt’s politics are deeply syncretic, though I would still classify them as conservative.

But Fender’s album and Schwindt’s book share a certain commonality of observation… even of spiritual aspiration. Both of them write out of a certain shared cultural alienation common to millennials in the Anglophone West. In both of their works there is a will, a strong thirst, to believe in something greater, something better… but that will is hampered by having grown up on a foundation of shifting sand.

Hypersonic Missiles is not a concept album, but the songs do hang together thematically. It’s an indifferent, even callous, world that is viewed through the eyes of the young and the vulnerable. The title song, which is also the opening track, is sung through the eyes of a narrator (loosely autobiographical in Fender’s case) whose fatalist attitude toward the modern world and its leaders—who say it’s ‘high time for hypersonic missiles’—gets him called a ‘nihilist’. Yet his attitude of powerlessness in the face of world realities that he has neither the power nor the knowledge to affect, is one which he has learned from his ‘elders’: ‘the silver-tongued suits and cartoons that rule my world’. This very much parallels Daniel Schwindt’s broad characterisation of the millennial predicament.

But there’s more to it than that. Fender’s narrator has difficulty really committing even to his own positions. He owns up to some degree of knowledge, but then disavows it in the same breath: ‘kids in Gaza are bombed and I’m just out of it’; ‘I’m not smart enough to change a thing’; ‘I’ve no answers, only questions, don’t you ask a thing’. It’s as though this narrator understands that there is something being asked of him that he can’t deliver… an understanding that gets spun out and explored in greater detail in ‘White Privilege’: this dovetails very closely with Schwindt’s characterisation of millennial ‘guilt’. The only thing he can own up to is a commitment to love the recipient of said song:
But I believe in what I’m feeling,
And I’m falling for you.
And though this world is gonna end, but till then,
I’ll give you everything I have—I’ll give you everything I am.
It’s not entirely blameless, that the thing that Fender’s narrator finds most ‘real’, the things he can ‘believe’, is a feeling. I think he understands quite well that this is not enough to base any kind of commitment on, yet at the same time, it’s all he has, and it’s the only thing he has control over.

This broad, what I will call attitudinal, agnosticism (rather than religious agnosticism) is what underwrites the entirety of the album. It isn’t an accident, therefore, that the spectre of suicide, of overdose, of death-by-despair, lingers over the whole album like a threatening cloud. In ‘The Borders’, Fender cites how his friend’s godmother ‘took those pills, and now she’s gone’. And of course ‘Dead Boys’ is all about the too-many deaths-by-despair of young men in the impoverished towns of the English north where Fender grew up. And the snarling, imprecatory ‘Use’ at the end of the album maintains a kind of strange ambiguity likening certain kinds of abusive interpersonal relationships to abusive drug habits.

This attitudinal agnosticism contrasts starkly with a certain degree of Scriptural literacy in Fender, which is most noticeable in ‘The Borders’. ‘The Borders’ is a loosely-autobiographical song of Fender in his younger days, who lost a friend who was like a brother to him in many ways. Yet the language he uses in it, and the character of the two boys, very closely recalls the Old Testament tales of estranged brothers: Esau and Jacob most notably, but there are also hints of Ishmael and Isaac, Joseph and Judah, even Abel and Cain, in the tale he spins… transposed into the contemporary key of Geordie poverty. The friendship / foster-brotherhood Fender describes rises out of shared experiences: growing up in houses of divorce, abuse, neglect, generational anger… but also the resentments of one against the other build up from the start: ‘and your dad took off when you were a baby, and you still hate me for my dad stuck around.

There are these glimmers of hope, like when Fender’s friend’s godmother helps him deal with his anger issues. But then those glimmers of hope die. There is no turn in the story in ‘The Borders’. Not only is there no faith that can save the friends and foster-brothers from estrangement, but even the possibility of faith is occluded. The story ends with one brother’s hand at the other brother’s throat. Unlike Ishmael and Isaac, unlike Esau and Jacob, there is no reconciliation. But Fender is still alive and singing—even if it is as hebel, as a passing breath—suggesting that maybe there is hope somewhere… outside the song and its story.

This deeply underscores Daniel Schwindt’s assertion that it requires massive effort, often seeming insurmountable, for millennials to believe. The sort of faith required to effect a reconciliation like the one which ‘The Borders’ seems to yearn for but doesn’t happen—simply isn’t there. And we see certain intimations of the background of fundamental uncertainty (both economic and existential) that underlies this lack of belief.

The most hopeful song on the album, actually, is ‘You’re Not the Only One’, quoted above. It’s a song in which Fender’s narrator is addressing a lover who feels alienated from the fake smiles around her, the pressure to conform, and the meaningless rituals of ‘night life’. The narrator assures her, tells her that she’s not alone, that he admires her composure but also shares her disillusionment. Yet even here there’s a strange ambiguity, a double meaning in the language which distances itself from certainty. (What lover wants to be told that they’re ‘not the only one’?) A similar disillusionment diffuses another not-really-love-song here, ‘Will We Talk?’, which distinctly un-romantically explores the mixed feelings and internal contradictions of the ‘age-old ritual’ of a one-night stand.

Other songs speak to conditions which are more universal and less grounded in specifically-millennial generational angst. ‘Saturday’ describes the age-old work-week grind and the longing for the release of the weekend; ‘That Sound’, the classic mentality of the rock musician for whom meaning and beauty in life is found in his music (and in precious few other places). Comparisons to Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger and John Mellencamp again assert themselves. ‘Two People’ is a distinctly non-millennial song: Fender is describing the travails of an older couple in an abusive, unhappy relationship. One is tempted to think of this song as something of a reply or a coda to ‘Jack and Diane’ or ‘The River’, though ‘Two People’ is much less specific than these—its protagonists are anonymous.

But there is also a kind of generational response to ‘Born to Run’ here, too, in ‘Leave Fast’. There’s a lot less hope that getting out of Dodge is an option in ‘Leave Fast’, which is in fact slow and elegiac in tone, but there’s also a lot more urgency:
Mass of filth and rubbish outside the houses,
And broken fridges and torn up sofas.
The boy racers tearing down the beehive road
Leading out to coastlines,
Where kids freeze their lungs
And run amongst the rolling dunes away from everyone.
The fact that this song takes the form of a conversation with an ‘old man’ who was apparently less fortunate in getting out of his situation than Springsteen was in getting out of Jersey (as a culture writ large), makes this song a suitable close to the album.

Hypersonic Missiles is, at first glance, a fairly bleak album. But because it speaks to the reality of a world where faith (and still less certainty) are hard to come by, and because it speaks to that reality with empathy and understanding, even the bleak moments are characterised by a sense that Fender suffers with us through them. Beneath the unbelief which is so prominent, there is a deep unmet desire to believe. And the album as a whole is shot through with these painfully-bright incomplete slivers of hope, these fragments of promises that things might get better. Honestly, Hypersonic Missiles is one of the best expressions of millennial spirituality that I’ve yet heard, particularly in light of Schwindt’s work.