It’s one of my more embarrassing moments as a pop culture writer. I was doing a retrospective about Midnight Oil’s Blue Sky Mining. Being well-versed in current events both here and abroad — or rather, thinking I was well-versed — I went off on a tangent about how Peter Garrett eventually left the band, it dissolved, and he was elected to become a part of the Australian government. All of this is true, by the way, and I should have left it at that.
Instead I groused about some incongruity in the rock and roll firebrand taking up with the governing body and having to compromise to get legislation done, for God’s sake. It was a piece of Americasplaining and in hindsight incredibly stupid, as I had no concept of Australian governance and less of a grasp on Garrett’s intentions than I thought I did. That’s what’s mostly odd. Garrett’s never been cryptic or quiet about how he feels.
That’s a good thing. Another good thing is that, after too many years off the stage, Garrett is back, this time with his first solo album, A Version Of Now. The very first track, “Tall Trees,” proclaims it without hesitance. To explain why I felt compelled to throw out the bit of soul-searching that prefaces these remarks, the second track, “I’d Do It Again,” goes straight to the point. “I didn’t jump/I wasn’t pushed/went of my own accord to do what I could/I got my hands dirty and I had a go/To try and even up the score, I had to leave the show.” The song’s title sums up how he feels about the experience.
Message has always been a core element of Garrett’s music, both as Midnight Oil’s imposing frontman and now on his own. This record finds him providing a more biographical side than we’ve heard before, partially owing to the Oils lyrics being handled primarily by Rob Hirst and Jim Moginie, but mostly because he was writing his memoir after his years as Minister for Environment Protection, Heritage, and the Arts; and Minister for School Education, Early Childhood, and Youth. Being thrown back into the orbit of music and memories through recollections apparently did something to him. Nostalgia? Reignited sense of purpose? Probably both.
Midnight Oil effectively ended in 2002 after the Capricornia album. With that much time between writing and recording, you’d think this record would be a genteel acoustic folkie. But Garrett himself once said that he “doesn’t know how to go halfway,” so he has gathered up a band dubbed “The Alter Egos” featuring Peter Luscombe, former Jet bassist Mark Wilson, and the Oils’ own Martin Rotsey on the guitar.
The result, while not approaching being a “new Midnight Oil album” is pretty darn close. The steady, pounding “No Placebo” and “Kangaroo Tail” both wipe out any doubt of diminished abilities. As a matter of fact Garrett’s voice, always a distinctive sound, seems like it was spirited in not long after the Capricornia sessions ended. These elements will always remind one of his previous (and future?) band. The not-subtle differences are that Garrett keeps things in check more on his solo outing. He doesn’t rip, roar, and wail as often here, even at it’s most rocking. So, no “Warakurna” or “Forgotten Years.” But you do get an undiluted love song in the form of “Night & Day,” which is so much farther into the singer’s personal life than one ever got with the Oils that it makes perfect sense that this project was conducted as a solo effort.
In the past five years I can count the new albums I’ve listed to back-to-front in multiple succession on one hand. A Version Of Now joins them. It’s about a half-hour long, but it’s all you need, and rock albums probably are at their best when they don’t get in their own way. This record works partially as a reintroduction and a reminder, but it mostly works because the songs sound great when cranked up really loud.
Earlier this year it was announced that the Oils would be hitting the road again, so there are hopes that new material might congeal from the reunion. Perhaps so. It’s good to know that Peter Garrett is caught up in the spirit of music-making again, regardless of the method it manifests in, and also good to know he’s still perfectly capable at accomplishing it. For a man who hasn’t shied away from doing what he felt was right, even if it meant turning to “the mouse instead of marching feet,” the listener can be confident he’s put his whole heart into the nine tracks that comprise A Version Of Now. We benefit from the strength of his convictions, and are somehow challenged to be just as receptive to the call of responsibility.
A Version of Now is available from Amazon Digital by clicking the link.