For the 2016 election, I made a Spotify playlist full of songs about elections, social issues and, in some broad and general way, the American ideals we talk about and tend not to live up to. This year my playlist includes just two songs: LCD Soundsystem’s new cover of “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang” and Jason Isbell’s “Hope the High Road,” which between them encapsulate the scope of what we’re voting on.
“(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang” is an incredibly on-point cover, and another demonstration of James Murphy’s deep knowledge of obscure dance-punk songs. First released in 1981 by the British synth-pop band Heaven 17, the song denounces racism and authoritarianism in the context of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Though it satirically prescribes a “funky chain dance” as an antidote to encroaching fascism, the track is more than just ironic: “History will repeat itself,” Glenn Gregory sings. “Crisis point we’re near the hour.”
LCD Soundsystem updates the sound of the song, adding scratchy, abrasive guitar, a clapping beat and a bomb-ass bass part that bounces and pops through the second half of the track. Nancy Whang sings lead, and changes a lyric name-checking Reagan to “the orange one.” The subsequent description, “fascist god in motion,” remains the same. The song is pointed, fun and relentlessly catchy, and by envisioning fascism as a corny dance fad to be avoided, the track treats the self-serious intellectual pretensions of fascism with the derision the ideology deserves.
“Hope the High Road” is also catchy, though it takes a more earnest approach. Isbell and his band the 400 Unit included the song on their 2017 album “The Nashville Sound” (there’s also a taut version on Isbell’s new concert album “Live from the Ryman”). The song comes across like a reaction to the 2016 presidential election: “Last year was a son of a bitch/ For nearly everyone we know,” he sings. Given where the past two years have taken us, it’s even more resonant today. But Isbell isn’t bitter, or even angry. He’s weary, yes, but also hopeful. “There can’t be more of them than us/ There can’t be more,” he sings on the bridge, before letting fly with a fierce slide guitar solo. (Just to tie this into the LCD Soundsystem track, let’s imagine “them” as the fascist enablers and “us” as, well, the rest of us.)
When Entertainment Weekly premiered the song in March 2017, Isbell explained what he was going for. “I want [listeners] to feel encouraged to be vigilant but to still stay classy, for Christ’s sake,” he said. “If you’re doing too much yelling and too much screaming and acting out of frustration, you’re not effecting change in any positive way.”
It’s easy to vent on Twitter (guilty; working on dialing that back), or let cynicism and despair have the advantage. But Isbell’s reference to the high road evokes Michelle Obama: “When they go low, we go high,” she said back in 2016, a lifetime ago. That’s a hard thing to do when it seems like the low road is a faster and easier route. But she’s right, and so is Isbell: there can’t be more of them than us. So go vote, and let’s try to prove it.