Fugazi - Steady Diet of Nothing
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
The general consensus on Fugazi goes like this: Repeater (1990) is most people's favorite album by the band. 13 Songs (1989) and In on the Kill Taker (1993) vie for second and third, with The Argument (2001) and End Hits (1998) somewhere in the middle. Red Medicine (1995) and Steady Diet of Nothing (1991) invariably bring up the rear. These rankings are fairly transparent; people like Fugazi when they're direct. Repeater is "anthemic," while 13 Songs is "groovy" and In on the Kill Taker is "raging." Red Medicine is the "weird" album, dub-stained, with freakin' clarinet. Steady Diet of Nothing, though, doesn't even earn such notoriety. It's the blip between Repeater and In on the Kill Taker, championed by few.
Which is a shame, because in a way, it's Fugazi's finest moment. This, of course, is a suspect claim for a band whose albums all sounded different, and that prided itself on elusiveness. But people forget this latter aspect, which is Steady Diet's forte. Sure, "Waiting Room," "Merchandise" and "Facet Squared" make great sing-alongs. But In on the Kill Taker almost collapses under its own weight; it's grinding and exhausting. Steady Diet of Nothing is much more listenable, though not for lack of edge. It's Fugazi's Kind of Blue—sleek, spare, simmering.
The sparse, dry production is much to credit. Steady Diet was the band's first attempt at self-production; its limited ability kept knob-twiddling to a minimum. The result was the best-sounding rhythm section Fugazi ever recorded. Brendan Canty's snare cracks crisply, while Joe Lally's serpentine bass is deliciously high in the mix. On this foundation, guitars bob and weave with Gang of Four-esque efficiency. The clean tones of "Long Division" are so dry, they could have been recorded direct. Often, songs break down to guitar-bass conversations or entire full pauses. Fugazi's trademark dubby feel is present; the way the drums skate off the beat in "Latin Roots" is pure Stewart Copeland. But where noise and feedback seeped through the spaces on later albums, here they're starkly empty.
Taut tenseness ensues. "Reclamation" is the closest thing to an anthem here, yet it shelves guitars high up as textures, denying them the cathartic chunkiness of Repeater or In on the Kill Taker. Even when Ian MacKaye barks out the chorus, the song continues to cruise on its bassy undertow, a dub version of itself. For an ostensibly pro-choice song, it's sexily repressed. "KYEO" is the next best candidate for release, yet its highlight is a palm-muted breakdown that sounds like triumphant chicken scratching. This is the sound of a band reining itself in.
Guy Picciotto attributed this to Fugazi's mindset at the time, tense from the first Gulf War. But the band veiled its protest in abstraction. At first blush, "Nice New Outfit" seems like anti-consumerist satire; however, "You can pinpoint your chimney / And drop one down its length" reveals its anti-war hand, with a devastating conclusion: "Sorry about the mess." Behind the hot-blooded fucking of "Latin Roots" lurks the specter of national identity. "Exit Only" stays vague, repeating the words "exeunt" and "sympatric" in opposition like nebulous Venn diagrams. No "You are not what you own" chants here—"we must keep our eyes open" is all this record musters. This reserve assures Steady Diet's longevity. It doesn't beat listeners over the head, though they may desire it. Unlike, say, Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name," a closed system of slogans, Steady Diet leaves space for interpretation, sonically, lyrically, and visually (the figure on the cover will forever remain inscrutable). In this way, it's Fugazi at their best: ditching the easy answers of Minor Threat, and asking hard questions.