When Bernard Fanning won an ARIA in 2006, he appealed to “all Australian musicians that are around now, and the ones of the future, to use Midnight Oil as an example. They’re such a great example to people like us, ’cause there’s a lot of great things about Australia but there’s a lot of sh-t things about this country at the moment as well, and it’s up to people like us to stand up and say something about it.”
I’m not sure if any other Aussie act stepped up to fill the void.
Thank God for Midnight Oil.
Twenty years ago this month, Midnight Oil released the Capricornia album. For a long time, it looked like this would be their swansong. Singer Peter Garrett embarked on a political journey, spending nine years in federal parliament. But in 2020, the band returned to the top of the charts with The Makarrata Project, an achievement that was bittersweet – the weekend the record debuted at number one, the band’s bass player Bones Hillman died of cancer.
Hillman’s blistering bass work can be heard on Midnight Oil’s 13th studio album, Resist, which plays as a wonderful tribute. Together with drummer Rob Hirst, Hillman was part of one of the greatest rhythm sections in Australian music history. Garrett sings about “reliving past glories” in the album’s first single and opening track, Rising Seas. But the Oils have never been a band to rest on their laurels, and that remains the case here. Put simply, Resist is a thrill from start to finish.
The second track, the epic The Barka-Darling River, is the Midnight Oil story in just one song. The first half rocks – and wouldn’t have been out of place on the Species Deceases EP. Then the track takes a turn, with a piano interlude showcasing the band’s sense of adventure and experimentation. It’s glorious.
“Let’s shake some truth out of the jar,” Garrett sings. These are love songs to the planet. And though “old king coal is dying”, all is not well. “This is not the Summer of Love,” the band notes in We Resist, while the following track Lost At Sea starts ominously: “In the age when the loudest voices win, words are now worth less than silence.”
Surprisingly, Resist also exhibits a sense of humour. “Who left the bag of idiots open?” Garrett asks in The Barka-Darling River. Later, he refers to “coal-fired erections” in Reef, which sounds like a how-to-vote song. “Consign them to purgatory,” he states simply.
Forty years after the classic 10 to 1, Midnight Oil are still delivering songs for the head and the heart, “standing up to those who sell fear”, making the listener think and dance (and throwing some delightful curveballs along the way – check out the hypnotic rap in We Are Not Afraid). It’s a potent mix, and no one does it as eloquently or as powerfully as Midnight Oil.
As Bono said when he helped induct the Oils into the ARIA Hall of Fame, “The Midnight Oil idea is still present, still contagious, still a virus you don’t wanna shake off. It’s like they were born from Whitlam’s phrase – maintain your rage.”
That said, there’s a sadness at the heart of Resist. The world is on the brink, band members are mourned, and the Oils are retreating, to “tell some stories at the bar”. But, still, “the music keeps pumping”.
If Resist is the end of the road for Midnight Oil, it’s one to treasure. “All that I have now is a souvenir of you,” Garrett notes in the Jim Moginie gem Tarkine. But there’s no doubt we still need them. As Garrett asks in the final track, Last Frontier: “Who fixes the messes that we keep making?”
Resist by Midnight Oil is out Feb 18 via Sony.
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