by Geno Thackara
There’s maturity, and then there’s maturity. There’s the teenage kind you develop with those first heady tastes of adulthood – relationships, driving, alcohol, things like that. Moving on from that, there’s also a deeper kind that comes from confronting life changes, bigger responsibilities, job/career paths, death, and other stuff that’s just no fun at all. Life can so easily make all those things pile up together, often dropping new issues into your lap before you’ve really gotten a handle on the old ones.
That seems to have been the case for Tim Freedman in 1996. He’d had a great few years as pianist and co-frontman of the Whitlams, beautifully complemented by the drunken silliness of guitarist Stevie Plunder, and they’d been building a reputation across Australia as a fun lovable bar band. However – could you already sense a “however” coming here? – it wasn’t entirely silliness, as Plunder was struggling with alcoholism more than anyone probably realized. It led to him apparently killing himself on Australia Day, the same week the band cracked the top 100 for the first time.
The inevitable change from losing a founding member was big, but the growth in Freedman’s songwriting was just as significant when he re-formed the band later that year. His hooky melodic sense and deadpan humor still stayed intact. Half the songs here could be suited for radio play in an impressively eclectic pop-rock mold. When he sings “All my friends are fuck-ups / but they’re fun to have around,” it works fine in the context of that particular song (a fun catchy tune as intricate as it is bonkers)… yet it reflects a new world-weary depth behind the album. Things had reached a level of maturity they hadn’t before – yes, even if he also found it funny to put himself on the cover urinating in a public park.
Eternal Nightcap is definitely an adult album, and not just because the first song ends with some random lines cut and pasted from a page of hook-up ads. Some subjects are still often approached with amusing detachment (“Some say love, it only comes once in a lifetime / well, once is enough for me / She was one in a million / so there’s five more just in New South Wales”). At other times it’s not afraid to be all too blunt – most notably with the three “Charlie”-titled songs threaded through it, which touchingly describe meaningful moments in a friendship without shying away from how screwed-up people can be.
The Whitlams’ fun pub roots are back on display in “A Band on Every Corner” at the end, complete with penny whistle and “li-de-dai” singalong chants. By then it already feels like a look back that’s a bit out of place, even if it’s not as weirdly ill-fitting as the mid-album cover of “Tangled Up in Blue.” On the other hand, though, Eternal Nightcap is enough of a patchwork that there’s room for all those different things (it was even recorded at odd times and places with a rotating cast of different musicians). Freedman had too much to encompass here to settle on one style or mood. The overall result could only be as complicated, fun, messy, humorous, screwy and affecting as life itself.