This mini-album, this “project”, may be the first new music from Midnight Oil in some two decades, but its genesis goes back almost two decades more, to something that reshaped the band, intellectually, emotionally and, consequently, musically.
As amplified in Andrew McMillan’s chronicle, Strict Rules, in mid-1986 the Oils wanted to bring their now-international show, their production, their power to communities rarely visited by touring musicians since the likes of Slim Dusty and other country shows had all but stopped making their way through remote Australia.
The logic went something like this: why should people in those out-of-the-way places miss out on what people in Melbourne or Paris or Rio could see on the regular? Better yet, along the way Midnight Oil would learn about their country directly, from the source.
As noble as that felt, it quickly ran into the reality that this was an audience, and these were settings, that didn’t lend themselves to the same application of force and the same assumptions of ego that made rock’n’roll shows work in the cities. Rather than performing for the audience, or better yet, joining with them, the band was coming at the audience, and they were losing them.
As band legend has it, electric guitars were swapped for acoustics, dynamics were wound back, they began to really listen, not just hear – and the result was the album Diesel and Dust, hitting No 1 in Australia and No 21 in the United States; the single Beds are Burning top 10 and 20 in the UK and US respectively.
As with Diesel and Dust, The Makarrata Project focuses on Indigenous issues and white relationships to them from several angles. The Uluru Statement from the Heart, seeking a First Nations’ voice enshrined in the constitution (and read here by several key Indigenous voices in the final track), and the Makarrata Commission, which would facilitate agreements between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, is the impetus for and the financial beneficiary of this release.
The songs veer from some kind of gospel-folk over a piano rumination (Change The Date), winsome atmosphere (Terror Australia) and back-porch balladry (Desert Man, Desert Woman) to brass-punching, rattling rock (Gadigal Land), tense-but-rhythmic groove (First Nation), outright pop (Come On Down) and sunset acoustic sway (Wind In My Head). In them, Midnight Oil’s main songwriters, Rob Hirst, Jim Moginie and Peter Garrett, express anger and frustration, hope and connection – historical and contemporary.
“Don’t bring your poison, don’t bring your grog/Don’t you bring your smallpox, sure to kill our mob,” says Gadigal Land; “When we gonna start the conversation … When we gonna say the word invasion?” asks First Nation; “Time passes freely/We’re all passing through/A night round the campfire/Gonna do it for you,” promises Come On Down.
More importantly though, if one criticism of Diesel and Dust was that it was a bunch of white blokes telling Aboriginal people’s stories for them, The Makarrata Project looks to tell these stories with them, giving at least equal time to Indigenous voices, language and music.
The late Gurrumul, in a previously unreleased vocal, and Dan Sultan, in a husky, impassioned new one, present two sides to the same point around Garrett’s reined-in voice in Change the Date, offering a secular plea that ends up feeling spiritually connected. Reversing that arrangement somewhat, Alice Skye feels gentle and bared, with suggestions of Sarah Blasko, as she drops little nuggets of sharpness in Terror Australia, a song that plays less to the spirit than the front of mind.
Both of those come through in Desert Man, Desert Woman. It begins in Pitjantjatjara, sees Frank Yamma easing into the contrast between the “desert man, family bound and ancient/Born of the earth, the dust his blanket” and the “winking, spitting and sparkling lights … siren sounds at suburban dawn”, and then essentially clears the way for Wind In My Head which thickens its sound as Kev Carmody and Sammy Butcher sub-in for Garrett halfway through.
Rapper Tasman Keith sharpens the tone of an otherwise blunt-force First Nation (which has echoes of Put Down That Weapon, and Jessica Mauboy in the background), Bunna Lawrie, Joel Davison and Kaleena Briggs broaden the more familiar Garrett pressure points in Gadigal Land, and Troy Cassar-Daley offers the right kind of amiability in the upbeat closer, Come On Down.
Yes, there are a lot of “other” voices on this Midnight Oil set. It’s sure not 1987. Good.
• The Makarrata Project by Midnight Oil is out now through Sony