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Wednesday, May 30

Leor Galil on Fugazi's "The Argument"

Our friend Leor Galil has written for Forbes, EsquireThe Chicago Reader & several other esteemed publications, which is why we were so honored to have him be a part of Important Records this past weekend. He was kind enough to send us the piece he prepared especially for the show so we can run it here, for those who may have missed the show.

Catch a preview below and read the full text after the jump!


Usually when people talk about Fugazi the conversation focuses a little more on how the band got things done than what it actually did. Many music fans enjoy canonizing the groups they love, and Fugazi often gets placed in the upper echelon of any number of genres—such as rock, punk, and post-punk—partially because of the feats the band accomplished independently. Fugazi sold millions of records, turned down offers from every major label, and performed thousands of shows for fans of all ages around the world. And yes, the guys in Fugazi did it themselves.
All that has somehow made the group superhuman in the eyes of the public. It’s an odd thing to consider seeing as Fugazi’s DIY idealism came out of a rather pragmatic wish on the part of its four members—Ian, Joe, Brendan, and Guy—to make the music they wanted to make on their own terms. That’s a pretty reasonable thing to want. In fact it's a pretty human desire.

That streak of humanity is just part of what makes Fugazi’s music so compelling: Few bands have created music about things like body politics, the constraints of language, and gentrification with the kind of emotional insight that Fugazi brought to the table. Throughout the years the group created great songs that pinpoint insightful observations about our society and existence, and underscored those points with visceral and anthemic grooves. Lyrical intellect aside, one of the more engaging thematic elements of Fugazi’s last album, The Argument, remains under the surface of every song. Everyone experiences the subject at-hand and yet it’s something many musicians avoid like the plague. That unspoken thing is aging.
Pop music is typically myopic when it comes to age. In the words of ‘80s German synth-pop act Alphaville, most musicians would prefer to remain “forever young.” Whereas other cultures revere old age and the wisdom that comes with it, pop music—and, by proxy, American culture, the bedrock of rock ‘n’ roll and all strains of modern music that grew out of that sound—values youth above everything else. There’s something almost virtuous about musicians who die at an early age, and something disdainful about those who chose to carry on past their perceived prime. Jack Black addressed this in the 2000 film High Fidelity when he questioned the career arc of Stevie Wonder, asking “is it better to burn out or fade away?” In pop music old age is a fate worse than death.
When The Argument came out in 2001, Fugazi had been together for 14 years. Some would prefer to remember guitarist and vocalist Ian MacKaye as the scowling teenaged front man of iconic hardcore group Minor Threat, but whenThe Argument came out he was nearing his 40th birthday. It was a time of transformation for both the members of Fugazi and the punk scene in the band’s hometown of Washington, D.C.
From the sound of The Argument Fugazi reveled in that environment. While plenty of musical acts petter out after a few albums—hence Jack Black’s omnipresent “fade away” comment—Fugazi sounds fresh and enlivened on The Argument, its seventh album. There’s something from all the major phases of Fugazi’s career on this album, from the righteous indignation and populist caterwauling of “Ex-Spectator” that harkens back to the band’s first recordings to the complex, low-key melodic “Life and Limb” that’s reminiscent of the group’s previous full-length, End Hits. Informed by decades of toying with elements of punk, funk, jazz, and even hip-hop, Fugazi pulled all of these disparate elements into a beautiful, cohesive whole.

Indeed The Argument is derived from the group’s long, developed history, a testament to its members’ symbiotic musical relationship and years of wisdom. The Argument is filled with wise ruminations on things like citizenship and scene politics. It’s an excellent example of how a punk band can continue to grow and evolve despite the perceived limitations of age, and yet many of the words I try to put down to describe its elegiac statement on the process of growing old feels like a misnomer.
“Mature” seems wrong because Fugazi exhibited an unrivaled thoughtfulness since its beginning. “Developed” also feels incorrect, as Fugazi constantly challenged and changed its sound with every new album. And “settled” is just plain wrong.
In an effort to try and summarize the power of The Argument, plenty of people, including myself, have called it a “swansong,” a term that evokes a magnificent beauty often seen in a final statement by a seasoned artist. Fugazi went on indefinite hiatus nearly two years after the album came out, making The Argument its final full-length effort—that is, unless the band decides its right to regroup, which may or may not happen, possibly. Who knows.
Sure, The Argument exhibits an aged grace, and in retrospect calling it a “swansong” seems apt given the band hasn’t played a show in nearly a decade, but the record doesn’t quite sound like a final statement. It sounds like four dudes who have just discovered a well of inspiration to draw upon and are using their decades-long relationship and musical wisdom to explore new sounds. Youth Brigade once referred to the creative stagnancy many great musicians have exhibited over time by saying “old punks don’t die, they just cash in.” With The Argument, Fugazi made aging a vital part of its DIY aesthetic and made it sound as good as anything the newcomers could dish out.

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