I have a pretty long list of improbable things I expect I’ll never hear.
The Cure’s 4:14 Scream, the “dark” half of their bubblier 4:13 Dream? Probably never happening. Another 50 States album by Sufjan Stevens? Unlikely. Saviour Machine’s Legend III:II? I would bet money that I will never hear that. And until a couple weeks ago, the return of Peter Garrett was on that list.
Like a lot of people, I figured I’d never hear Garrett’s singing voice again. I was an enormous fan of his band, Midnight Oil. I came aboard at the same time most people in this country did: with the video for “Beds Are Burning,” off of their landmark 1987 album Diesel and Dust. I was 13 years old and just gaining an appreciation for a well-written, hard-charging song, and “Beds Are Burning” is certainly that. I didn’t know at the time that it was a calmer piece of work for the band, nor did I fully grasp its political and ecological themes. But the song was great.
As my experience of the world grew, so did my appreciation for Midnight Oil. They were, unequivocally, one of the best political rock bands ever. Even their more placid material – and there’s plenty of that on Diesel and Dust and its follow-up, Blue Sky Mining – is propelled by an urgency, a sense of purpose, a clear and present message. Much of that urgency is wrapped up in Garrett, their imposing bald frontman, a wild presence with a voice that only works by sheer force of will. It’s a powerful, unconventional thing, cutting through even the loudest din the rest of the Oils made, and really shining in a live context.
I stayed with Midnight Oil past the point where many left them behind, and it was very much worth it. 1998’s Redneck Wonderland is a powerhouse, incorporating the electronic elements in vogue at the time without losing what made the band special, and 2002’s Capricornia took a softer tack, providing a quiet capper on their career. When the band broke up, Garrett became one of the few political singers to truly put his money where his mouth is: he served in the Australian House of Representatives from 2004 to 2013. For much of that, he was the Minister for Environmental Protection, Heritage and the Arts, continuing the environmental work he undertook as president of the Australian Conservation Foundation.
And I figured that was it. Garrett would live the rest of his life in politics, never venturing back into music. As the years ticked by, the possibility of a Midnight Oil reunion or a new Garrett project grew dimmer. The man is 63 this year, and he seemed quite happy with his second act. I couldn’t possibly begrudge him that, no matter how much I wanted new music from him.
So when Garrett dropped his first solo album, A Version of Now, out of nowhere, it was one of the best surprises of my year. I paid import price for it – 25 dollars for 35 minutes – and as Garrett himself sings here, I’d do it again. In fact, I’d have paid that price just for the first song. “Tall Trees” is as swaggering a return as I could have hoped for, Garrett declaring “I’m back” while his crack band (including Oils guitarist Martin Rotsey) sways behind him. It’s loud and abrasive and catchy as hell, and sets the tone nicely for the rest of the record.
A Version of Now was clearly made quickly, in a rush of creativity. Its seven new songs detail where Garrett is now, and they do it loudly and proudly. “I’d Do It Again” serves as a look back at his political career: “While all the glory hunters were basking in fake smiles, twisted egos and ambitions mile after mile, I went to find a quiet place away from the madding mob, to try and make a difference, get on with the job…” “No Placebo” indicates his commitment, his promise not to walk away: “Mixed up nation, no deceiving, high land dry land I’m not leaving…” The punky “Kangaroo Tail” is a love letter to the Blue Mountains in Australia: “So many places I wanted to know, ended up dreaming of you, so many places I happened to see, ended up thinking of you and me…” “Only One” is a clear indication of Garrett’s confidence – it’s a slinky blues, and if there’s anything he’s not known for, it’s being slinky. But he pulls it off.
The album also includes two older Midnight Oil songs that never saw the light of day. The best of them is “Great White Shark,” written with Rotsey and second Oils guitarist Jim Moginie. All of these songs have hooks, but this one has the magic of Garrett’s old band, jumping from one hummable moment to another, wrapped up in biting guitars. Garrett’s voice hasn’t aged a day here – if anything he sounds better, more controlled, and when the gang vocals come in (“I want to be there and I want to breathe, I want to be whole and I want to be free”), it’s very much like listening to a great lost Midnight Oil track. The other, “Homecoming,” doesn’t quite hit those heights, but it’s a swell song that fits in nicely here.
I would be willing to wager that even if this record went through a hundred permutations in its short gestation period, it always opened with “Tall Trees,” and it always closed with “It Still Matters.” The closing anthem is so good, so perfectly Peter Garrett after all this time, that I smiled for an hour and a half after hearing it. The song’s spoken verses restate Garrett’s belief in his environmental and political causes (“Across a windswept open plain some still go against the grain…”) and ties it into a bow in the best way: “There is dignity, there is hope, there is light at the end of the road, and it still matters to me, I hope it matters to you…”
It does, Peter. More than it did when I first heard that voice. I’m pretty grateful for a lot of things this year, musically speaking, but “Tall Trees” and “It Still Matters” may be two of the songs I am most grateful for. I hear now that Midnight Oil may be reforming next year, and as much as I love A Version of Now, that news does my heart good. I’m still in disbelief that I lived to hear Peter Garrett’s voice again, and now I might get to hear the full band? Life is beautiful. Welcome back, Peter. Welcome back.
Next week, my 800th column. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.