Midnight Oil, The Makarrata Project
Reviewed by Jarrod Henry
Few, if any, Australian bands have had such an impact on the social, environmental and political landscape than Midnight Oil. Since the mid 70’s the quintet have demonstrated an unwavering ideology: to raise awareness and give popular voice to issues they hold most dear. Now, with their first full length release since their reformation in 2016 the band have once more bought their intellectual and emotional focus together for one singular purpose.
Like his musical predecessor Diesel and Dust the Makarrata Project centres its thematic overtones on the issues of the Indigenous peoples of Australia and the relationships and attitudes between and towards them and white people.
Using the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart as the lynchpin here, the Oils have used the mini-album as a vehicle of collaboration with several Indigenous artists, for as surely as the raising of awareness is a key point so too must be the show of solidarity and cooperation. And for the most part they make good on the delivery.
Opening with First Nation, the second single to drop pre-release, frontman Peter Garrett joins forces with rapper Tasman Kieth to drive the theme home straight off. Some lovely backing vocals courtesy of Jessica Mauboy sit atop a head on tempo that is equal parts aggressive and pleading.
Instrumentally it’s a pure slice of Oils; Martin Rotsey’s stabbing guitars punctuate the rhythmic force of Jim Moginie’s underlying synths, Bones Hillman’s bass line and Rob Hirst’s trademark percussive wall.
Gadigal Land is perhaps the most identifiable Oils track evident here, all punching drums and the horns that formed such an integral part of the bands DNA since the very early days. Dan Sultan stands alongside Garrett vocally here and it’s a howl of rage (quite literally at one point too) as is evident in the lyric “every day since the day you came is a day of rage” and the song is every bit as powerful as the Oils of old.
The slow burning beauty of Change the Date builds on Moginie’s exquisite piano and features a vocal by the late Gurrumul. Sultan again duets with Garrett and the emotion contained within is really, raw, honest. This isn’t merely a duet for commercial purposes – indeed the band are taking no financial profit from the record at all – it’s a direct line to a desired and long hoped for unity. Terror Australia sees Alice Skye take the lead vocal on a sparse piano and here’s when the diversity in the songwriting within the band is really evident. Borne aloft on a melody that serves as the perfect foil to Skye’s very Australian vocal it’s every bit as heartfelt and passionate as the roaring pub rock sound the Oils are so well known for.
Desert Man, Desert Woman subdues the mood yet again and yet still manages to capture the listener spellbound as Pitjantjatjara singer Frank Yamma intones in native tongue over a stripped back piano and guitar track before his measured vocal comes over the top. Long time friend of the Oils Kev Carmody duets with Garrett on the more up tempo Wind in My Head and it’s a beautiful melody. The album closes with the reading of the Uluru Statement by Adam Goodes, Pat Anderson and others and sits at the very heart of The Makarrata Project before Garrett and Troy Cassar-Daley bring the album to a close with Come On Down, a message that echoes the final sentiments of the Statement “we invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future”.
The Makarrata Project is a rich, powerful and timely reminder that the foundations of the wide country we all inhabit go back far, far longer than the first settlers back in the 1700’s. The beauty and diversity and the meaning of what these songs contain deserves to be heard not only by every Australian but by all those who truly do believe that together there is how for a better future.
Will the album polarise fans? I’ve no doubt. Those who are seeking a collection of ‘proper’ Oils songs may feel somewhat let down but as the band have stated this is a collaborative project designed to shed light on an important set of issues. And if even those few who truly do understand the premise of it spread the word, well then that’s hope enough for the future for me.