Review: Sancho (and a General Tribute to The Whitlams)

Back in August of 2018, I was motivated to write a brief blog post about what is probably my favourite album: Eternal Nightcap (1997), which is the third album by The Whitlams. I have wonderful memories associated with this album, as it played on repeat in the car during family road trips and to me, acted as a kind of cultural compass for life in Sydney and its surrounds. I was only in primary school at the time but I felt grown-up listening to it, as it featured wonderfully descriptive and cheeky lyrics, such as the following:

– ‘All my friends are fuck-ups but they’re fun to have around’ and ‘By the time she gets to Marrickville we’ll be masturbating’ from ‘You Sound Like Louis Burdett’;

– ‘She was one in a million so there’s five more just in New South Wales’ from ‘Up Against the Wall’; and

– ‘My mum’s got a new boyfriend and I like the man’ from ‘Love Is Everywhere’.

If you’re not from Australia, this album is a classic, with unparalleled storytelling through song—largely owed to founding (and the only original) member Tim Freedman. There’s also the fantastic ‘Charlie’ trilogy of songs, dealing with issues of mental health linked to substance abuse, the magnificent ‘No Aphrodisiac’, which won Triple J’s Hottest 100 back in the day, and a wondrous, toe-tapping cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Tangled Up in Blue’. Although some of the lyrics have been rightly changed in recent live performances to fit shifting societal attitudes (e.g. the description of Kinky Renée in ’No Aphrodisiac’), the album remains a favourite and was even performed by the band in its entirety with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, along with other classic songs like ‘Blow Up the Pokies’.

Yet more wonderful albums followed, such as Love this City, a critique of Sydney in the lead-up to the 2000 Olympic Games, Torch the Moon, when the current band line-up was confirmed, and Little Cloud, which Freedman wrote when he lived in New York City, before returning to Australia. I could go on about the others but we don’t have time for that.

Little Cloud was The Whitlams’ last album, released in 2006. For years while touring, Freedman would joke that they were set to perform songs from their latest album; the audience would cackle in response, unfazed by the lack of new material and still thrilled to hear their favourite songs from an already enjoyable canon. I was one of those people, as I have seen the band perform and Freedman play solo a number of times.

In 2022, all of this changed. For the first time in 16 years, The Whitlams released a new album: Sancho. Upon hearing at a solo show early last year that new content would be coming out, I was seriously excited. But what prompted a new release from a band that had seemed content in playing its classic collection on repeat? The answer is a sad one… the album title ‘Sancho’ was the nickname of the band’s late tour manager, Greg Weaver, whose death sparked new songwriting. Thankfully, the band turned an untimely loss into a positive tribute.

As I claimed above, Freedman is unmatched in his storytelling, mixing catchy riffs and effortlessly precise piano with engaging, heartfelt narrative and often dry, quirky humour. Unexpectedly, the album begins with a cover of ‘Catherine Wheel’ (with the original by Washington) and includes an unpredictable track list that weaves in and out of moods and styles. Notably, two great story songs (at over six minutes in length) feature on the album: the title track, ‘Sancho’, which is a musical eulogy that captures the feelings of an exhausted band on the road with its manager; and ‘Ballad of Bertie Kidd’, a song based on the true story of robbers who were busted on the way to a bank heist, simply because they were spotted putting on their balaclavas too early while driving.

There’s also a lot of cheekiness, such as the catchy ‘(You’re Making Me Feel Like I’m) 50 Again’, which is particularly amusing to me, as back in 1997, Freedman sang in ‘No Aphrodisiac’ as a joke about (then) older lovers relative to himself: ‘Forty, shaved, sexy, wants to do it all day’.

There are songs of affection too, such as ‘Nobody Knows I Love You’ and ‘In the Last Life’, which I believe are exemplary of The Whitlams’ ability to write lyrics that perfectly balance the first and second person: you feel drawn into Freedman’s thoughts and emotions as lead vocalist, but also feel like he’s addressing you directly with his messages, even if those feelings aren’t intended for you.

With three songs exceeding five minutes, Sancho still manages to be digestible at 44 minutes in total duration. By the end, you’re left feeling satisfied, yet also wanting more; but as a fan of the band, you know that you shouldn’t wish for too much. This is quality rather than quantity. After all, Sancho is the first new work from the band in 16 years, and evidence of their continuing ability to produce top-notch content that is poetic, heart-breaking, uplifting and funny all at the same time.

Give Sancho a go.

This post was originally written in March 2022 for Hemispheric News; subscribe at the Patreon site One Prime Plus to receive this monthly newsletter and other benefits that are linked to the Hemispheric Views podcast.