This thorough, if excessive, 25-year retrospective pairs two discs spanning Midnight Oil’s first blistering decade of rock activism with the Australian band’s hit-making, ”Beds Are Burning” period and beyond.
One CD might have done the job, but there’s little bloat here and more than enough to entice die-hards and new listeners with a proper reflection on the group’s genesis, process and closure. Essential Oils draws from all 14 of their recordings between 1978 and 2002. At 36 songs, the album traces a journey of demanding social justice through song, ones that evolve from polished punk to textured pop to industrial mayhem.
Through the years Midnight Oil’s music grew more incendiary and more confrontational. But rather than call out injustice by pointing fingers, Midnight Oil kept busy by lifting them. The group reported on global atrocities to an audience unfamiliar with such suffering and condemned the destruction of cultures and landscapes, including Australia’s indigenous Aboriginal people.
Radio’s initial resistance to playing the Oils in their own country failed to prevent their charting success by the late 1980s, when lead singer Peter Garrett became president of the Australian Conservation Foundation. This collection’s second disc includes a handful of selections from 1987’s Diesel and Dust, a Billboard fixture for more than a year.
Timelessness is preserved in moments like Garrett’s madcap rant on nukes from “Lucky Country,” Rob Hirst’s rapid drumming on “Only the Strong,” and the R.E.M./Smiths-inspiring guitar jangle of “Read About It.” These songs are brash but clean, even catchy. And by the time “Golden Age” arrives on this set, the end of Essential Oils feels premature, as did the band’s split in 2002. “They stopped, with dignity,” Rolling Stone’s David Fricke writes in the liner notes, “leaving the work and history they made to resonate and agitate.”