One Track Mind: Midnight Oil, “The Dead Heart” from Essential Oils (2013)

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This is the Almost Hit from Midnight Oil’s Diesel and Dust, which is primarily remembered for the Top 20 smash “Beds Are Burning,” but in many ways “The Dead Heart” always felt like the better song to me.

Both tracks, featured in the forthcoming career-spanning 36-track Essential Oils, share the topic of reparations for native peoples (I still marvel over the idea of such a thing finding its way into the toppermost of the poppermost around the world) but “The Dead Heart” was too haunting, too consumed by its own roiling emotion, to get past No. 53 in the U.S.

Its theme went deeper, and its message of stoicism and determination has ultimately meant more to me — as an modern-day American: “We carry in our heart,” Peter Garrett memorably sang, “the true country.” That reverberates across oceans, across political philosophies, across time.

Essential Oils, a double-album anthology, collects singles and choice album cuts like this one — from Midnight Oil’s self-titled debut through to its 2002 finale Capriconia. Due on April 30, 2013 from Columbia-Legacy, the set represents a long-overdue chance to get beyond “Beds are Burning” — and the now little-heard “Dead Heart” is a great place to start.

Of course, the original intent of this cut was to spotlight the return of Ayers Rock to its traditional Aboriginal owners in the band’s native Australia. (The flinty protest song “Beds are Burning,” meanwhile, focused on the plight of the Pintupi, a Australian desert tribe that was ultimately moved into the Papunya settlement in the middle of the last century.) But who in this country can listen to these songs and not connect the dots with our own shameful Native American narrative?

There’s a stoic resiliency associated with “The Dead Heart” — amazing, when you consider this group’s rough proto-punk beginnings. And Midnight Oil’s measured musical approach here has come to resonate more than raging against the machine ever could. After all, it’s clear how intractable this type of issue remains, even 25 years later. We still have a very long way to go.

While “Beds are Burning” got the spins, “The Dead Heart” has stuck with me longer.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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