Music » Music Review

Anthems away: Midnight Oil runs out of gas



The 80s was the decade of the anthem. Springsteen started it, of course, but between feel-good cheerleaders both passable (Peter Gabriel) and intolerable (Sting) and a wheelbarrow full of long-haired singers with their chins jutting out, from crazy Bono to the clowns in the Alarm, we kind of got our fill of prancing guitars and song titles like "Freedom Youth" and "Nights of Thunder." For me it was all over late in 1987, when I saw the Alarm open for Dylan. I watched in disbelief as singer Mike Scott trotted out some tired Woody Guthrie quote he'd obviously picked up from the Springsteen handbook, patently unaware of the relationship between the author of the quote and the poor soul he was opening for.

Peter Garrett--minus, one must admit, the hair--is the latest anthem-monger to hit the big time, or at least threaten to. Midnight Oil, the guitar-driven Australian quintet that Garrett serves as front man, appeared, for a time, to be on the verge of becoming the 90s' first nonrap phenom. But their new record, Blue Sky Mining--their fourth U.S. release and ninth overall, I think, including EPs--sounds like they're stalled. Last I looked, it had only gone gold after three months in release, which in these multiplatinum days is almost an embarrassment. And the band's recent show at Poplar Creek wasn't even two-thirds full--and there was professional dingbat Phil Collins selling out the Rosemont four nights straight a few days later. Sheesh. What's a straight-thinking band from Australia to do?

Blue Sky Mining had all the makings of a blockbuster: anthems were in, remember, and the Oil's previous record, Diesel and Dust, was the sleeper breakthrough that always precedes the through-the-roof hit. Diesel and Dust took a long time to do it, but once it hit big--fueled by the exotic and powerful single "Beds Are Burning"--it stayed that way, producing about half a dozen radio standards. Blue Sky Mining's job was to consolidate the gains and become 1990's Born in the U.S.A./Purple Rain/Joshua Tree-style megahit. The trick--I've always thought, anyway--is that you have to go out and take chances, and actually push ahead musically and thematically even as you play to your strengths. Blue Sky Mining doesn't seem worth the four-year wait. Diesel and Dust was a strange record; while its two American predecessors, Red Sails in the Sunset and 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1, were persuasive at the time (the band has a radio-friendly but still rough guitar sound, and its politics are of course wholesome), in retrospect they're not very compelling. I used to love 10,9,8,..., but now it sounds clunky; the hit, "The Power and the Passion," reminds me of the Fixx. But Diesel and Dust catches your imagination, both lyrically--

Out where the river broke

The blood wood and the desert oak

Holden wrecks and boiling diesels

Steam in forty-five degrees

(that's 45 degrees centigrade, of course)--and musically: the instrumentation on "The Dead Heart" comes complete with trombone, French horn, and cello competing with a tumbling acoustic guitar and a couple of drum snaps that sit you right back down in your chair.

What sinks Blue Sky Mining is how undifferentiated and indistinct it is. While some of the band's personality is retained--there are a couple of good singles--you get the feeling that a lot of this record was done by rote: "the smell of the wallaby stew" has a press releasey feel compared to Diesel's "Warakurna camels roam." There's not a lot about Blue Sky Mining that says Australia; "Forgotten Years," a depressingly Alarmish anthem, even has lines that do double duty for the U.S. and Australia: "Our shoreline was never invaded / Our country was never in flames." I don't think it was calculated, really; it's just unfortunate. I liked the exotica of Diesel, and now it seems to be gone.

And in its place is a bunch of anthemic radio rock. Garrett functions as front man, but he doesn't write much of the material: guitarist Jim Moginie has his name on most of the band's notable songs, with drummer Rob Hirst an important second writer. (Diesel and Dust credited all the songs to Midnight Oil.) It's difficult to penetrate the band's facade, apparently; most of the articles I've read are relatively superficial and they're invariably about Garrett. (A friend at a guitar magazine told me that their attempts to do a story on Moginie alone were rebuffed.) For whatever reason, the musical heart of the group is ailing as well: "Bedlam Bridge" is an exercise in manipulative ominousness; "One Country" is hippie wishfulness; and "Antarctica," besides requiring the band to sing over and over again the words "I'm a snow plough," is just dull.

Live, the band has generally acquitted itself well; honed on the rough-and-tumble Australian club circuit, it is quite loud and energetic in front of an audience. There are two onstage focal points: Garrett's unrelenting ferocity--bald as a beet and six and a half feet tall, he stalks the stage like an extremely ticked-off giant praying mantis--and the guitars of Moginie and Martin Rotsey. But the live show also seems to have peaked with Diesel and Dust. In the midsize halls they used to play (I saw them here at the Aragon and in San Francisco at the Fillmore), Midnight Oil were thunderous enough to transport the crowd and close enough so you could watch how they did it. Most particularly, you could see how much work Moginie and Rotsey did to give Garrett a solid foundation. But this time around the band finds itself facing the perennial difficulty of the breaking act: dealing with a large hall, trying to retain some semblance of intimacy and still take care of the fans in the back. They did an OK job at Poplar Creek: the sound was pristine, and the set list was unchallenging--16 songs, 13 of them, by my count, from the last two records. Even from way back you could see that this was a taut and muscular assemblage of well-tanned Australians who were there to please. Garrett is a sight in concert: during "Sometimes," he and Rotsey shared a microphone, Garrett towering above Rotsey, the veins in his neck easily visible from the 15th row.

But the evening's main business was anthems. Garrett provided them in spades, and even took time off to lecture a parent in the audience about providing her kids with earplugs. "A four-year-old's eardrum is very thin," Garrett said, nervily, I thought. What crowd there was cheered noisily, but I still wondered if Midnight Oil cared that they'd blown their shot at superduperstardom. The only explanation I can come up with is that the album just didn't cut it: absent most conspicuously was the media barrage that generally kicks off a selling spree. Midnight Oil didn't make the cover of Spin or Musician. The long-awaited Rolling Stone feature came this month, but Garrett lost the cover to Bart Simpson. Anthems indeed. The 80s are over.

John Wesley Harding is an English singer-songwriter whose unfortunate similarities to Elvis Costello--he sings like him, engages in lots of wordplay, and uses two-thirds of Costello's old band, the Attractions, as a rhythm section--might tend to obscure his talents. Harding is probably too smart for his own good, and unlike Costello sometimes takes refuge in a sentimentality that may yet prove fatal. But his easy, sometimes scintillating command of melody and ultimately winning personality somehow pull him through. What I thought was his first full album, Here Comes the Groom, came out soon after New Year's; (preceded by a funny sampler called The Christmas EP). Back then, the Costello angle killed the record for me: one song, "You're No Good," sounded so much like an outtake from Trust that I threw up my hands in disgust.

But something about Harding is engaging. I recently found a record I didn't know existed; called It Happened One Night, it's an acoustic live show from November 1988 in London, on Demon Records. On it, Harding makes a pretty strong case for himself. (Demon, incidentally, is Costello's English label; Harding also uses Costello's publishing company, Plangent Visions. None of this is to suggest that Harding is in alter ego of Costello's; it's just funny.)

Onstage, Harding is witty and a wiseass: he originally came through Chicago early this year as an incongruous part of the Mighty Lemon Drops tour; later he appeared again with Michelle Shocked and agreeably played at the Earth Day celebration in Lincoln Park the next day. (He also did an unannounced set at Lounge Ax that night.) His finest moment was a song called "July 13th, 1985," an amusingly unprincipled atomic-strength attack on LiveAid generally and on its fans, performers, and organizers in particular. Hilarious, but also--it seemed to me at the time--a bit smug. But on It Happened One Night Harding does it warmer and friendlier, and you can hear it in all its true glory. He neatly reams everyone from Bob Geldof and Everything but the Girl to the Cars and Paul McCartney. Even banalities are handled with panache ("I felt bad about the starving / But felt good to be alive"). And his articulation of the line "The music was fucking brilliant" is perfect.

Harding is quite canny about pop culture. "Bastard Son" is a heritage spoof that salutes Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, and James Dean and has a nice joke about Leonard Cohen and Suzanne Vega. "Famous Man" is a wrong turn about Mark David Chapman, but it has a nice coda homage to Plastic Ono Band's "Mother." (On Here Comes the Groom there's a ringing pop song called "Cathy's New Clown" that does similar business with the Everly Brothers hit. Rock critics love stuff like this.) The jokey stuff is hit-or-miss, however; what I like best about It Happened One Night is the way Harding makes the ballads work as well. "Affairs of the Heart", rolls out slow and languid, and "Careers Service" is a moving antiwork song.

Harding's Christmas EP is almost a promotional item, though it was apparently released commercially as well. It consists of a lengthy interview with Harding and four musical tracks, including "Here Comes the Groom," an acoustic cover of Madonna's "Like a Prayer," and a Christmas talking blues that gives the album its name. (The song was apparently recorded for a Warner Bros. Christmas sampler but got left off, for some reason.) The Madonna cover works; live, Harding says, "Two recent compositions of mine on the subject of religious protest have recently made the top five in the U.S." and then goes into an acoustic medley of "Like a Prayer" and Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus." (No, he didn't write either of them.)

And Here Comes the Groom, on relistening, is a step forward. (Harding and Andy Paley, of the Paley Brothers, produced.) The title song is as good as anything Harding has written, a dissociative, almost paranoid stardom metaphor: "He looks into a mirror / Practicing his poise / But it reflects so badly / The groom just gets annoyed." "The Devil in Me" is lesser stuff, a clumsy "Sympathy for the Devil" rewrite with a horror for a closing line: "You can call me humanity." (People who come up with freshman-year observations like that don't have much call to make fun of Don Henley.) But "Cathy's New Clown" is fine stuff, and once you figure out that Harding has a head on his shoulders you give him some slack on his Costelloan mien. He was probably born that way.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul Natkin, Melodie Gimple.

Add a comment