The picture that comes immediately to mind when I think of the Australian rock band Midnight Oil comes from the television. I can still picture the band on the stage at the Fox Theatre – the spastic rhythmic movements of the gawky bald vocalist, Peter Garrett, dominating the stage during the Blue Sky Mining tour, backed by the Hunters & Collector’s horn section on the band’s breakthrough hit “Beds Are Burning” – but I can’t erase the other image from my memory.
In the aftermath of the wreck of the Exxon Valdez and its resulting environmental disaster, the Oils staged an impromptu protest concert on the streets of New York City, on a truck bed immediately outside of Exxon’s corporate headquarters. The picture I have is of Garrett climbing the P.A. cabinets to stick his face into a t.v. camera as he rants some lyric about injustice and corporate irresponsibility. It’s a face in pain, racked with disappointment, concern and rage.
That face at the heart of Midnight Oil has mixed these sentiments and a strange blend of apocalyptic gloom and hopeful humanism on its newest album, Earth and Sun and Moon. Garrett stands like a modern-day Ezekiel in the midst of a culture fascinated with pop music stardom to say that the day of reckoning for our planet is just around the corner. And if we don’t respond, we’ll have to admit resignation as they suggest in “Feeding Frenzy,” that “God knows it’s been fun.”
Speaking by phone from the publicity offices at Columbia Records, Garrett laughs at my Old Testament reference, admitting some humor in response to the mantle of political correctness and spiritual righteousness that has fallen upon him. However, asked about the underlying spiritual themes in Oil’s music he is clear and direct. Garrett warns that he can only speak for himself when he affirms, “I see myself operating out of traditional orthodox Judeo/Christian beliefs. I very much see my life as a walk of faith.”
Recognizing that he is but one of five that shape and focus the direction of Midnight Oil, I asked how they arrive at decisions about message and meaning. “We all have lives and interests outside of Midnight Oil,” explained Garrett. “It’s always seemed a fairly natural progression. We run this band with a fairly primitive form of democracy, we sit in a circle ’til we all agree on what we should do. It’s practically tribal, and it can be rather time consuming.”
In response to my suggestion that is sounded a bit like a Quaker worship service, where the gathered sit in silence waiting for God to lead someone to speak, Garrett again laughed. I suggested that this can be a slow and uneventful process, to which he added, “but it can bring to the surface surprisingly creative ideas as well.”
For fifteen years, Midnight Oil has been a voice of reason in rock & roll, arguing by example and passionate sounds, sonic bombast and lyrical heart that great rock music could also be about important things that are going on in the world. That the band makes great, forceful and entirely enjoyable rock anthems can be overshadowed by its interest in the global political climate and environmental danger brought on by the loss of the rain forest. Garrett’s own outside activity – running at one time for the Australian Senate and participating as a Board member for Greenpeace – can distract one from his powerful vocal presence and amazing quirky charisma as a live performer.
The band broke through with an anthem of aboriginal justice that would have seemed to have little meaning outside of the Australian out-back. Still “Beds Are Burning” connected with many in the world who saw the plight of native peoples across the globe mirrored in this cry to right a long passed historical wrong. Some Christian fans also found a hint of Garrett’s spirituality on other tracks from Diesel and Dust like “Dead Heart,” “Dreamworld,” and even “Bullroarer.”
The band followed up that work with Blue Sky Mining, again challenging inhumane and unjust treatment of the working and lower classes, while prophesying of “kingdom come” in “One Country.” The Creator God was celebrated in “Stars of Warburton,” even as success in popular culture’s terms was eschewed in “King of the Mountain.” The band’s tour that year, gathered together with vintage live recordings dating back to tours supporting albums like 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and Red Sails in the Sunset, to produce Scream in Blue a celebration of fifteen years of Midnight Oil live shows.
Now for Earth and Sun and Moon, Garrett and company have sought to create a more immediate, intimate feel, like a return to more of a live in the studio sound. Says guitar/keyboard player Jim Moginie, “That’s because that’s the way we recorded it. We wanted to get back to the songs and our instruments, get back that feeling of playing together.” To which Garrett adds, “We wanted to return to a style of recording that was maybe less perfect, less precise, but got to the emotions and energy of the performance. We wanted to let the songs stand on their own and not clutter them up in the studio.”
For “Drums of Heaven” Moginie and Martin Rotsey deliver a guitar sound so vivid and powerful, that I’m pretty sure they miss-named the song. “Outbreak of Love” and “In the Valley” express the kind of sentiments I expect to find in a gospel music setting. The first expressing the irrepressibility of grace, and the second seeks to make sense of and grow in response to the death of loved ones, taking the twenty-third Psalm as a title before expressing the desire for life to offer this much meaning: “I hope virtue brings its own reward/And I hope the pen is mightier than the sword.”
“Now or Neverland” is a title that points to the real scary environmental issues of our world with a prophetic edge. “Feeding Frenzy” almost assumes that we can kiss off the earth, that it’s too late to turn back. Garrett admits that environmental issues remain important for the band, and the timing is becoming all the more crucial. “We feel really strongly that voices need to be raised, that we do have to speak out now if we’re going to be able to make a difference. The record is saying again, what I think Midnight Oil has always said, that this earth is all we have and if we don’t take care of it, we lose it all.