Artist/s: Midnight Oil: Peter Garrett, Bones Hillman, Rob Hirst, Jim Moginie, Martin Rotsey. Guests: First Nation, Jessica Mauboy and Tasman Keith, vocals. Gadigal Land, Dan Sultan, Joel Davison, Kaleena Briggs, Bunna Lawrie, vocals; Andy Bickers, sax; Angus Gomm, trumpet; Anthony Kable, trombone. Change The Date, Gurrumul Yunupingu, Dan Sultan, vocals. Terror Australia, Alice Skye, vocals. Desert Man, Desert Woman, Frank Yamma, vocals. Wind In My Head, Kev Carmody, Sammy Butcher, vocals. Uluru Statement From The Heart, read by Pat Anderson, Stan Grant, Adam Goodes, Ursula Yovich, Troy Cassar-Daley. Come On Down, Troy Cassar-Daley, vocals, guitar.
Category: Contemporary, Indigenous Australian, Rock
Label: Sony Music
Reviewed by Noel Mengel
“Bands come back because they can: they want to and the audience wants them to. For Midnight Oil, there has to be something more than that. They find it here in a musical expression that is as inspirational as it is enjoyable.”
Great gigs stay long in the memory. I have a clear recall of the first time I saw Midnight Oil: the anticipation and excitement before the show, those microphone stands across the front of the stage, one extremely high one in the middle. The tension as the band enters and starts playing, minus that singer with the extremely high mic stand. The thrill then as Peter Garrett finally emerges from the shadows, dancing manically in the lights, and the rush of this volatile mix of anger, energy, ideas, beauty. “Let’s rock,’’ he announces, and it feels like the tightly packed crowd is lifted off the floor as one.
In 1980, no one else sounded like Midnight Oil. In 2020, that’s still true.
The tension, the rush, this feeling that rock music that feels great to dance to can also be about something more durable than just another sweaty night of Australian rock. And make you feel like you are part of it rather than being preached to.
In 1980, Midnight Oil were not yet the massive band they would become but already well on the way, two albums under the belt and new songs like No Time For Games and Wedding Cake Island signalling the melodic force they would soon bring into focus on albums such as 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 , Red Sails in the Sunset and Diesel & Dust.
Already the power in the songwriting and the performance made that leap seem inevitable. Night by night, sweat-soaked gig after sweat-soaked gig, Midnight Oil were building the foundation of a huge audience. The people who saw them in those early years came away as true believers in this band.
And here they are, 18 years after the release of their last new music, sounding as energised and electric as ever, and still with an important message to deliver about this country we share.
No one doubted that when Midnight Oil finally returned to the stage for a world tour in 2018 they would soar again: they always were one of the world’s great live bands. But few make records as powerful as their greatest work after such a long break. Much less ones that sound so current.
While these seven songs might be categorised as a mini-album, there is nothing mini about it. The Makarrata Project is a towering achievement, a triumph from start to finish.
It arrives too with great sadness. Bones Hillman, the band’s bass player since 1987 and the Diesel & Dust album, whose powerful backing vocals also became an integral part of the Midnight Oil sound, died of cancer just days after its release and their first No 1 album since 1990.
Diesel & Dust was a crucial part of the Midnight Oil story, arriving at a period in mid-career where bands often lose their way. In 1986 the band had toured in the outback, playing far from their usual adoring crowds to Indigenous audiences. It was a learning and humbling experience, finding ways to strip back, to play music to listeners who didn’t already love the band.
The songs that came of that experience, like Beds are Burning and The Dead Heart, are central to one of the great Australian albums.
These new songs also address the experience of First Nations people, but this time are created in collaboration with some of our most powerful Indigenous artists and voices.
Here too is that feeling so many of us had all those years ago, the spark from the collision of energy with songs that mean something, the tension, the rush.
If you haven’t listened to Midnight Oil for a long time, you are forcefully reminded of what you have missed on the opening track, First Nation, the backing vocals calling the listener in, the tightly coiled guitars, the feeling that any second now, this thing will take off. Part of the power of Midnight Oil is the mix of writers in the band, and this one is written by drummer Rob Hirst with Tasman Keith.
“First Nation,” Garrett sings, “first to deserve an explanation. First Nation, last to receive an invitation.” The reconciliation message is as clear and direct as the music that drives it.
Jessica Mauboy adds her powerful voice to that message, and Tasman Keith delivers a rap that feels integral, not an afterthought. Some fans might wonder how Mauboy and Tasman Keith can fit in a Midnight Oil song. In practice, the combination is startlingly fresh.
Gadigal Land sits atop one of those thunderous bass lines that are at the heart of so many Oils songs, with added force from the brass section. There is a rich mix of voices from the band and guests including Bunna Lawrie of Coloured Stone.
The anthemic Change the Date opens and closes with the vocals of the late Gurrumul Yunupingu, and Dan Sultan delivers one of his most soulful vocal performances. Alice Skye reinforces the message of the need for reconciliation with her lead vocal on Terror Australia, co-written by Garrett and Hillman, where she sings “You can’t talk about the future if you are running from the past.”
Frank Yamma, the great singer and songwriter from Central Australia, takes the listener deep into the spirituality of that country in Desert Man, Desert Woman.
“All the songs are in the stars,” Garrett sings in Wind in My Head. Sammy Butcher, from Midnight Oil’s outback touring friends the Warumpi Band, adds a vocal in Aboriginal language, and Kev Carmody delivers the song’s searing spoken-word conclusion.
The album concludes with the Uluru Statement From the Heart, calling for the establishment of a First Nations voice enshrined in the Constitution, read by Pat Anderson, Stan Grant, Adam Goodes, Ursula Yovich and Troy-Cassar Daley.
It makes clear the concept of Makarrata, a word in the Yolngu language which describes parties coming together after a struggle to heal divisions.
Hearing these respected voices read the statement, drawing together the threads explored in these songs, followed by Moginie’s Come On Down, one of the most hopeful songs ever from a band that has contributed so much these past 44 years, is something truly extraordinary.
Bands come back because they can: they want to and the audience wants them to. For Midnight Oil, there has to be something more than that. They find it here in a new musical expression that is as inspirational as it is enjoyable.
Midnight Oil are donating their share of proceeds from The Makarrata Project to organisations that seek to elevate The Uluru Statement From The Heart (https://fromtheheart.com.au and https://ulurustatement.org).