Twenty, thirty years from now, when the story of Fugazi is written by smarter people than me, they will probably point at "The Argument" as their crowning achievement, the culmination of their evolution as a band and the pinnacle of what they could do. That would be hard to argue with.
I point to this: I had a friend who absolutely hated Fugazi, but loved this album. This was Fugazi at a different level. This was a band that produced "Red Medicine" and came through "End Hits" and ended up here.
This was a focused band. The opening lets you know that this is going to be a journey. "Cashout" is all about the vocals and a noise rock chorus that would make no sense coming from anyone else.
The verse on "Full Disclosure" has so much urgency you have no choice but to get swept up in it as it pulls you into a surprisingly poppy chorus, the likes of which would feel right at home on the alternative top 40. Even crazier is the outro that follows the last chorus, like something ripped from 90s radio, as if Fugazi are finally acknowledging all their contemporaries. Of course, they follow that section up with some good old fashion punk rock noise, a reminder that they cannot be pigeonholed.
"Epic Problem" is Ian McKaye's vocal stylings at their best. The beauty is that he makes the lyrics a part of the song, a part of the actual structure of the music. It helps that the music is great, with yet another 90s inspired section in the middle (I should probably point out that this album came out in 2001). And then we get the outro, which is something right off of "13 Songs" with a little "Repeater" thrown in to finish it off. It's a little bit sing song, a little bit head bopping, and more upbeat than you would have expected given the beginning of the song.
Remember those things I said before about Guy's guitar style? Welcome to "Life and Limb." It's already a great song, but then you get to the center with this wonderful, quirky guitar solo over straight up pop music. We come back to the moody stuff, of course, but that center section makes the rest even better.
You may have noticed a trend developing. There's an awful lot of pop music on this record, but it very often undercut, either by wedging it into more jagged parts or by layering it with discordant guitars. It's the perfect give and take for Fugazi, something that took them 7 albums to get to. These songs have the straight forward core of the best "In on the Killtaker" tracks with all the experimentation of the strangest "End Hits" songs.
When Joe Lally is singing you have an idea of the type of song you're going to get. "The Kill" fits right in. It's ethereal, as most Lally sung songs are. The song never explodes, never builds to anything, but it's a constant, mellow groove with a nice change from the verse to the chorus.
Let's just get right to it with "Strangelight" -- as interesting as the song is, it's what happens at the 4 minute mark that truly makes it great. I don't even know what that note-y part is being played on (guitar doubled with keyboards? With a violin?) and the changing piano chords make it sound ominous. It's wonderfully dissonant, yet darkly triumphant.
This could be the Fugazi album with the most mood changing moments in songs. In this case, I'm talking about McKaye's vocals in "Oh," which is mostly sung by Guy. But read back over my comments on the other songs on this album and the shift in tone is a regular theme. Interestingly enough, the shift seems to frequently come at the end, a fitting microcosm of Fugazi's library of work.
"Ex-Spectator" has a wonderful, double drum opening. The verse is sparse and the chorus is full and powerful, driven by McKaye's vocals. What's really interesting about this song is how it almost seems like an answer to "Public Witness Program" from "In on the Killtaker." Both songs seem to be about the dangers of not getting involved, but this song pulls the character forward. The public witness can't stand on the sidelines any longer.
"Nightshop" is probably the clearest use of keyboards we've seen from Fugazi (at the two and a half minute mark), and they're used to excellent effect. We also treated to some acoustic guitars, as if the band decided they were going to jam all their non-traditional (for them) instruments into one song. This song makes me long for a new Fugazi record because it suggests that they were just beginning to experiment.
And now for "The Argument," theoretically the last song on the last Fugazi album. It's everything you could hope for from a final song. McKaye has said that the song is about how he will always be against war. But he frames it as being a bigger argument that's generally not made. The song itself would suggest that McKaye is calling out those who get bogged down in the small debates, who never see the forest from the trees: "that some punk could argue some moral abc's/when people are catching what bombers release." It's an argument against the myopic.
It's also the perfect example of the evolution of the band. The vocals are perhaps the pinnacle of what McKaye has managed to do over the years. The song is fairly quiet and pretty, with a quixotic keyboard break. And then it explodes. It explodes in exactly the way you would want a Fugazi song to end, with heavy guitars from McKaye and a dynamic, catchy note-y part from Guy. It's damn near perfect.
And then it's over.
If this is the last we ever hear from Fugazi....well, I'll still be sad about that, but they went out on a high note.