The year is 2001 — it’s been one month since 9/11, pop-punk and butt rock are at their peaks, and rock music is falling behind other forms of popular music. Then, Fugazi releases “The Argument.”
Although recorded before 9/11, the album wasn’t released until Oct. 16, 2001. As most Americans were reeling from the attacks, Fugazi released their most damning anti-war message to date.
Fugazi frames “The Argument” as a contest between two people; the title track itself frames war as nothing but a simple argument, with the narrator later declaring, “Well, I'm on a mission to never agree.” The album stands as a manifesto against injustice — it’s anti-war, anti-poverty, anti-nationalism and anti-corporate — and the message shines through consistently throughout.
There are other smaller arguments throughout the album: “Cashout” is a criticism of landlords and corrupt city officials, “The Kill” decries the militarization of police and “Oh” is a scathing critique of the corporate culture of the dot-com bubble.
Fugazi weaves masterwork instrumentals in between their lyrics. Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto’s guitars masterfully interplay like in previous Fugazi albums, however, this interplay finds its home in “The Argument.” In a sense, MacKaye and Picciotto’s guitars have become so beautifully distinct that they are indistinguishable — an ear-pleasing cacophony of chugging rhythms and shrieky melodies.
Fugazi’s rhythm section shines in this album. Brendan Canty’s drums provide a groovy, danceable beat which complements the otherwise slower pace of this album. Joe Lally’s bass is as funky as ever as he lays down unnecessarily smooth bass lines over songs that are, in other respects, ultra-serious anthems.
The opening of the album plays a series of unintelligible radio noises before transitioning into “Cashout,” the first proper song of the album. “Cashout” is sung by MacKaye, and in standard Fugazi fashion alternates between slow, groovy verses and explosive, angry choruses.
The next two songs, “Full Disclosure” and “Epic Problem,” are not only the two best songs on this album — or even in Fugazi’s discography — but are two of the best songs in all of alternative rock.
“Full Disclosure” features Picciotto on vocals. I once heard a friend describe Fugazi’s music as “bipolar,” and I never agreed with that statement more than when listening to “Full Disclosure.” Picciotto begins by shrilly repeating “I want out” before transitioning into perhaps the most beautiful song in Fugazi’s discography. Picciotto’s vocal range shines as he goes from repetitive wails to incredibly soothing choruses. The song ends with an explosive grand finale and perhaps the greatest guitar-work Fugazi ever created.
“Epic Problem” sees MacKaye return on vocals. The song alternates between sections that chug along and brief breaks where MacKaye shouts, “Stop!” The song then rises in tension before returning to a steady chug.
The real highlight of “Epic Problem,” however, is when MacKaye suddenly transitions from a tense, high-energy buildup into a lullaby-esque tune with hardly any backing instrumentals. Immediately after, the song explodes into yet another grand finale, closing out on perhaps the highest point of the album which leaves the listener to contemplate what they just experienced.
But before the listener has much time to contemplate, the song “Life and Limb” begins with Picciotto back on vocals. “Life and Limb,” “The Kill” and “Strangelight” each provide a smooth and steady break after the explosive tension of the previous few songs. The listener can calm down and mellow out to these songs, providing a much-welcome break midway through the album.
“The Argument” picks back up with “Oh” and “Ex-Spectator,” two more high-points of the album. “Oh” is the only Fugazi song to feature all three vocalists on the same track, with Picciotto taking the lead while Lally provides backing vocals. MacKaye’s vocals close out the song.
“Ex-Spectator” sees MacKaye rage a fiery and angry lambasting of his own past. In the song, MacKaye decries his old self as a passive bystander, but he will no longer stand silently while injustice runs rampant.
The penultimate song, “Nightshop,” provides a sort of “calm before the storm” — although, the song itself is not calm by any means. The aforementioned bipolar Fugazi sound returns in force between happy, upbeat sections and entrancing, shrieky sections of the song.
“The Argument” closes out with its title track, an entrancing indictment of war and warmongers. MacKaye’s vocals are both calm and angry, soothing and enraging. The song explodes into action at the end, bringing the album to a close on a fiery, explosive note.
This album demonstrates that Fugazi are not only masters of indie alternative rock, but music as a whole. “The Argument” is the pinnacle of Fugazi’s career; an experimental ending to an album that is altogether very different yet eerily similar to earlier Fugazi records.
Although Fugazi would go on a potentially permanent hiatus in 2003, “The Argument” leaves the listener wanting more. Fugazi set the bar so high that if they were to record another album, it may be impossible for them to top what they achieved with “The Argument.” But that won’t stop me — or other Fugazi fans — from anxiously awaiting a Fugazi reunion.
If you haven’t listened to “The Argument,” you need to right now. Several albums, both before and after, have come close to rivaling “The Argument,” but nothing has ever raised the bar past where Fugazi set it.
Final rating: 10/10
Best songs: “Full Disclosure,” “Epic Problem,” “The Argument”
Worst songs: None
Drake White-Bergey is the Photo Editor Emeritus of the Daily Cardinal. You can follow him on Instagram at @whitebergey.photography and on Twitter at @DWhiteBergey.