Midnight Oil

The Work Group, 1996

REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy


Throughout its 20 year career, Midnight Oil has always managed to weave through different trends of music and make it their own. Their Blue Sky Mining masterpiece hinted at the direction U2 took when they made The Joshua Tree. Their 1993 release, Earth And Sun And Moon followed the 'stripped down, minimalist' trend followed by such bands as Nirvana and Pavement. They retained much of their signiature sound, so they never appeared to "sell out" each time they shifted musical directions.

Enter 1996. While Midnight Oil's fanbase has remained strong, they haven't had a huge hit since their 1988 single, "Beds Are Burning." With their move to the Work label, pressure on a new album was minimal. What resulted was probably the most radical departure of the band's career. Part Achtung, Baby, part Sandinista! and mostly Midnight Oil, Breathe threw a lot of people off when it came out. Even I was a bit worried when I saw the liner notes. In the "special thanks" column, the Oils thanked producer Malcolm Burn for his "approach and sensibility."

"Underwater," the first track, opens with a scratchy, muffled guitar chord. The most radio-friendly track of the bunch, lead singer Peter Garrett widens his vocal range on this track while Jim Moginie and Martin Rotsey expand their guitar skills. The preachy lyrics of some of their earlier works are still present, but on "Underwater," a more optimistic tone is present. "No one can make her/no one can break her down," Garrett sings in that track. That tone is picked up on the next track, "Surf's Up Tonight."my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Malcom Burn may not be the first choice you would think of as a producer, but the two worked together perfectly on Breathe. He made Patti Smith's grief turn into a beautiful album that year with Gone Again. In Breathe, Burn seemed to push the Oils into taking every risk they thought necessary. That includes instrumental jammers, countryish ballads and even a guest vocal slot by Emmylou Harris.

The country toned "One Too Many Times" will no doubt take a couple of listens to get familiar with. Coming from a band who released an album called Head Injuries and has produced some of the most intense, urgent music of the 80s, it's an unexpected turn for the band, but it works. As does "Home," a beautiful ballad that is able to fit two very distinct voices in rock, Emmylou Harris and Peter Garrett into a very organic ballad.

The familiar Midight Oil returns with "E-Beat," an anthematic call for stating anew. "Gonna make amends for the things we've said/I hope that you understand me," Garrett pleads. Drummer Rob Hirst makes the song even more memorable with his rock steady sense of timing.

Breathe mixes acoustic and electrical guitar throughout the entire album. Though this may not seem too remarkable, it's Midnight Oil's most acoustic album of their career. It is also their most demanding album for a fan to listen to. The album has no instantly hummable tunes as they have accomplished on albums like 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 or Diesel And Dust. It takes a couple of quiet evenings to get acquainted with the changes Midnight Oil went through in making Breathe, but it's personalable enough to merit repeated listens.

"Bring on the Change" couldn't have been a more appropriate song title for Breathe. Though old school fans may have trouble adjusting to their new style, Midnight Oil refuses to backtrack to their earlier formulas. For a band that has been around for over two decades, Breathe makes its mark by breaking new ground. They have gone through another departure with the confidence of a seasoned band that has made its mark by their blazing live shows. Now, if their next album is a techno album produced by Puff Daddy, fans have a right to worry. Until that moment comes, give Breathe a couple spins and find a band that is still going strong.

Rating: B+

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© 1997 Sean McCarthy and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of The Work Group, and is used for informational purposes only.