Midnight Oil – The Makarrata Project: Album Review

Veteran Aussie rockers, Midnight Oil, make powerful statement in support of Aboriginal land rights.

Release Date:  30th October 2020

Label: Sony Legacy Recordings

Formats: CD / Limited Edition LP / Digital

Make no mistake, The Makarrata Project is a hugely important piece of work.  Part mini-album (its running length is around 33 minutes) but more importantly, part political statement, it’s a document in support of the land rights of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.  And what a powerful statement it is. 

Admirably, Midnight Oil have avoided the trap that would have left them open to criticism of being a bunch of comfortable white liberals bleating about aboriginal rights from the comfort of their Sydney homes, by joining forces with a bunch of talented Aboriginal musicians to put the messages across.

The project is based upon and built around the Uluru Statement From The Heart, a piece of dialogue that was first delivered to the First Nations National Constitutional Convention held at Uluru in May 2017.  The statement, reproduced on the cover and read aloud as the centrepiece of this album is, alternately, powerful and pleading in its quest for a First Nations Voice within the Australian Constitution and a fair and truthful relationship between the indigenous peoples and the Australian Government. 

The statement, and the eight tracks that constitute this album, repeatedly make the point that those same indigenous peoples had inhabited the vast land area that is Australia peacefully for 60,000 years and without alcohol, disease, mob violence, imprisonment, guns and all other imported “innovations” until the colonists introduced them a mere 250 years ago.  But the message isn’t a call to arms to repel the “invaders” – it’s a request for respectful accommodation.

Midnight Oil
Uluru Statement From The Heart featured on the album cover.

Of course, Midnight Oil are no strangers to the issue of Aboriginal land rights.  Their 1987 international hit Beds Are Burning was inspired during a 1986 tour of the Australian outback and the pivotal line “It belongs to them, let’s give it back” showed the particular colour that had been nailed to their mast and the song became the anthem of the campaign to restore the custodianship of Uluru to the native people.  The importance of the land rights issue to the band is emphasized by the fact that The Makarrata Project is their first album of original material since 2002!

But don’t go thinking that The Makarrata Project is just a sermon – it isn’t.  Although by its nature, the principal objective is deliver the message via the lyrical content, the music is excellent, and the overall effect is both stimulating and entertaining.

We kick off with First Nation, the current single and a song that establishes the uncompromising message of the project with lyrics such as “first to deserve an explanation – last to receive an invitation” and, in a long rap from guest Tasman Keith, makes clear that compensation and reconciliation is what is sought.  All this, to a typically chugging Midnight Oil rock accompaniment. 

The punky and punchy Gadigal Land tells the story of the indigenous people that traditionally inhabited the lands in and around what is now Sydney and relates how those people witnessed first hand the first landings of the convict cargoes and the subsequent spread of the westerners’ culture-eroding “gifts.”

Change the Date is a quieter song with piano and acoustic guitar backing that highlights the Aboriginal distrust of the annual Australia Day celebrations, an event that, to them marks the beginning of what is considered the deliberate destruction of their existence.  It’s sobering to realise that the first colonists believed that they were entering an uninhabited land, despite the visible existence of an established civilization.  Change the Date is also the first of several songs in which the lyrics are partly presented in (one of the many) Aboriginal languages – a tactic that heightens the inclusiveness of this project. 

Alice Skye provides the vocal on Terror Australia, a quiet piano ballad with yet more thoughtful and thought-provoking lyrics, including the observation that “Captain Cook now spawns Captain Coke, and beer flows over rum.”  Desert Man, Desert Woman is an acoustic folky tribute to the outback natives sung by Frank Yamma, a member of the Central Australian Pitjantjatjara tribe and a pioneer of the style that delivers western-type songs in traditional languages and Wind in my Head eulogises the importance of the natural and the sacred to the native people and bemoans the lack of public recognition of that importance.  The closing line, “Respect the old peoples’ guardianship of paradise” just about sums it up.

As suggested at the start of this review, the album’s focal point is the spoken word rendition of the Uluru Statement From The Heart.  With sections read in turn by Pat Anderson, Stan Grant, Ursula Yovitch and Troy Cassar-Daley, it’s an eloquent summary of how the fallout of colonization has severed many of the indigenous peoples’ ancient ties to their land and culture; it makes the observation that the Australian Aboriginals are “the most incarcerated people on the planet” and “are not innately criminal people.”  It was phrases such as these that stirred my interest in this vital project.

The album closes with a return to the rockier side of Midnight Oil as, with Come on Down, they encourage a getting together that will start the process of giving the indigenous people the rights they seek and deserve.

The Makarrata Project is a tremendous, worthy and well-produced piece of work that deserves to be heard.  With the right publicity, this album could become an important component in raising awareness to the causes of a deprived people who have so much to offer the world.

Watch the official video for First Nation from the new Midnight Oil album below.

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