The D.C. band’s farewell wasn’t the ending anyone wanted, but it’s the best we could have ever hoped for
Sometimes it’s easy to know when to stop. Plenty of bands, even great ones with storied legacies, have gone out with a last gasp, one final record that reflects a hollowed out shell of what they once were.
But for some other bands, finding the end of the line isn’t so easy. Is there really such a thing as going out on top? How do you stop when you’re still making great records?
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
If you’re Fugazi, you just…..do. At least that’s seemingly what happened in the case of the much admired D.C. icons. In 2003, two years after the release of what would prove to be their final record, The Argument, Fugazi went on “hiatus” (yes, we’re still clinging on to hope). There was no spectacle, no farewell tour of church basements or VFW halls. After 16 years spent building one of the best and most influential bodies of work the American rock underground has ever seen, the band simply shut off the lights and closed up shop.
Quietly going dark in the most understated way possible is a move sraight out of Fugazi’s unassuming, workmanlike playbook, but it would be a much easier pill to swallow if they had given us some indication that they were losing steam. For many, the band’s hiatus still stings, thanks in no small part to the fact that 2001’s The Argument proved just how much they still had left in the tank. Everything fans came to love about the band, the skillfull interplay between members, the musical tension, the raging intelligence, came to ahead on these final 11 tracks. With a discography so unflinchingly conistent, it’s almost pointless to rank and file the records within. But over the past two decades, a case has been built for the band’s final record as its finest hour. When all is said and done, it may go down as one of the great epilogues in rock history.
VIDEO: Fugazi in Denver 4/6/01
Paired once again with longtime friend and producer Don Zientara, Fugazi began putting together the pieces for what would become The Argument in 1999. Singer/guitarist Guy Picciotto likened the process of making the record to putting together Legos, with each member bringing parts and ideas to the table that were eventually pieced together into the songs that appear on record. And there are a lot of pieces. Even for a band that always put a premium on hard-earned musicianship, the arrangements on The Argument are dizzying, full of interlocking guitars, abrupt shifts in tempo and even string instruments in places. But it all works in splendid, complicated fashion. The first three tracks hit listeners square in the mouth. “Cashout” finds co-frontman Ian Mackaye taking greedy landlords to task for putting profit over humanity, while “Full Disclosure” rips at peak art rock fury. When Picciotto bellows “I DON’T WANNA” on repeat over a scaly guitar line, he sounds like a man crawling out of his own skin. By “Epic Problem,” the band is in full flight, throwing everything from odd time signatures and stop-start dynamics to menacing guitars at the wall. It’s classic Fugazi: smart, thoughtful, iconoclastic, angry and wildly cathartic.
But the best moments on The Argument come in the quieter moments that lean more on experimentalism than hardcore fury. It’s an eerie, anxious mood swing of a record, one that runs hot and cold, often within the same song. Picciotto’s voice barely hovers above a whisper on “Life and Limb,” but he’s got plenty to say. “The national temper, you know it’s written on your face,” he muses over looping, psychedlic guitar. “Etched and scratched and mirrored black, don’t you know it’s all the rage?” Nowhere on the record do the band’s many hallmarks congeal as effectively as they do on “Ex-Spectator,” which marries the politics and volume of the band’s D.C. hardcore roots with skittering reggae and a Lally/Canty rhythm section no doubt influenced by the city’s legendary Go-Go scene. Fugazi always paid a significant debt to the sonic sprawl of the city that birthed them, and by ending with their most ecclectic record, the band more than lived up to its own ambitious standards.
For everything The Argument has going for it musically, there are external factors that have only further heightened its standing over time. Released on Oct. 16. 2001 in the shadow of the Sept. 11 attacks a month prior, it’s easy now to look at the record as a strangely prescient harbinger of just how much of a dark turn America was ready to take in the decades that followed. Fugazi always went right at the throats of so many of our nation’s ills: greed, poverty, war, racism, social class structure, the dangers of group think. The Argument is no different, but its messaging hits much harder in a time marked by political division, incessant war and a public that’s hopelessley given in to herd mentality. “The Kill” turns Mackaye’s critical eye on people’s mindless allegiance to their own race and social status. And when Picciotto screams “Fuck your fucked directives, God I want a new invective” on “Nightstop,” he speaks for a lost nation overtaken by fear and anger.
But leave it to Mackaye, the conscience of now generations of free-thinking punks, to sum up his band’s M.O. in just a few succinct words. On the closing title track, he once again warns us about the cost of war and the lengths some will go to defend it.
“Well I’m on a mission to never agree.”
Call it obstinance or contrarianism if you want, but Fugazi’s steadfast refusal to never blindly accept the status quo remains as much a part of their legacy as anything they ever laid down on tape. It might still be hard to accept The Argument as the end, but 20 years on it’s probably safe to call it such. All things meet their inevitable conclusion. Let’s just be grateful they were able to do it with the fire still well lit.