Like so many movements billed as rock's next big thing, the Australian Invasion never quite panned out. As usual, the reasons had as much to do with the American audience as with the music itself, for part of the appeal of such an invasion was its undeniable novelty, as rock fans were presented with a whole new accent and argot to absorb.
Consider the case of Men at Work, an unknown quintet from Melbourne that became the surprise success story of 1983. Although the band owed its initial prominence to "Who Can It Be Now," a hauntingly paranoid pop masterpiece, its image was largely the result of "Down Under," whose reggae-fueled rhythms and antipodean references seemed fashionably foreign. Of course, "Down Under" was the exception, not the rule, to the band's sound, but that hardly fazed a nation of rock fans eagerly awaiting the musical equivalent of "G'day, mate!"
"Two Hearts" (Columbia FC 40078), the band's third and latest album, isn't likely to sate that craving. Granted, the lyrics tend to address Australian themes, such as the immigrant life described in "Maria" or the criminal heritage alluded to in "Sail to You," but these localisms are hardly essential to understanding the songs, and the average American listener can brush past them unhindered. Without the cartoonish references to vegemite sandwiches, the Australianisms on this album are barely noticeable.
Which makes the lack of pop content far less forgivable, for "Two Hearts" is most decidedly an album without a workable single. It isn't for lack of trying, either, because Men at Work, who will be appearing at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Aug. 13, have clearly worked hard for a hit. "Man With Two Hearts," for instance, dutifully builds its verse around a scalar theme reminiscent of "Overkill," while "Stay at Home" once again trots out the reggae beat that powered "Down Under." In fact, Men at Work seem willing to try anything, from the trendy rap that punctuates "Sail to You" to the ethnically accurate bouzouki stylings that graced "Maria."
The reason none of this works is that there is no real center to the album. Impressive as the band's studio sound might be, it's all too carefully crafted, as if Men at Work were more interested in delivering a simulacrum of sonic slickness than a set of strong songs. Nothing sticks, because little here has any weight to it, from the nasty cynicism of "Hard Luck Story" to the hokey sentiment of "Children on Parade." In the end, these men may be at work, but their labors amount to little.
Exactly the opposite is true of "Red Sails in the Sunset" (Columbia BFC 39987), the second American release by Midnight Oil, who will be at Merriweather Post on Saturday. Where Men at Work carefully crop their material to meet American expectations, the Oilers are almost confrontational in their determination to remain an Australian band.
As a result, "Red Sails" is peppered with lines only Australians could fully comprehend, from the aboriginal politics of "Kosciusko" to the Sydney TV figure sneered at in "Who Can Stand in the Way." On basic terms, these are songs that give no quarter to outsiders, for they demand comprehension as they stand. But rather than simply put off the listener, Midnight Oil backs its words with music strong enough to make almost any listener want to understand, until American fans are left trying to unravel references as seemingly impenetrable as Bruce Springsteen's New Jerseyisms must seem in New South Wales.
Not that "Red Sails" is entirely incomprehensible. "When the Generals Talk" is as tough a condemnation of the military-industrial complex as can be found on record today, even if it does sneak up on industry after attacking militarism. But the music heads in with a powerful punch, adapting a tough, hard-hitting rock-dance beat to modified hip-hop editing techniques, so that the band ends up sounding like refugees from the international media ghetto. Similarly, "Best of Both Worlds" channels heavy guitar raunch into relentless rhythmic overdrive, lending the music the sort of powerful fury that makes the general sense of the lyrics understandable, even if the specifics are not.
And that, ultimately, is the final victory of "Red Sails in the Sunset," for rather than play up the band's Australianisms as lovable quirks, it forces the American listener to accept them on the same terms that Stateside rock is accepted throughout the world. Which lends an added chill to the recognition implicit in "Harrisburg," where the standout American references hit home with brutal clarity.
That Midnight Oil can make Americans see their own problems from another nation's perspective is impressive enough; the fact that the band can do so with eminently accessible rock 'n' roll is near miraculous. If America ever is conquered by Australian rock, here's hoping that all the bands are as worthwhile as Midnight Oil.