On Bonus Tracks

Most of the time, I consume music in the context of albums. After I wrote that sentence, I got up and put a record on, which has become my preferred way of listening to music when I’m at home. I’m constantly scouring eBay to find some of my favorite albums on vinyl at prices that aren’t extortionate.

Because of my affinity for listening to an album front to back, I’ve come to generally loathe bonus tracks.

The problem is that the artists I listen to (and, I think, most artists in general that aren’t produced and managed into homogenous oblivion) take the time to curate the songs they record into a single, cohesive whole. This is generally ruined by bolting a song onto the end, even if it’s a really great track by itself.

Take, for example, Saves the Day’s Stay What You Are. In high school, I was a huge fan of this album, in part because I had friends who loved the band and we voraciously consumed everything they released. While my friend Peter was in Japan, he bought the Japanese version of the album for my best friend Sun, which had a bonus track at the end of it. Sun insisted that this extra track, “Sell My Old Clothes, I’m Off to Heaven” was a natural part of the album, even though it was a B-side recorded during the Through Being Cool sessions and released much earlier on Vagrant Records’  Another Year on the Streets compilation. None of this mattered to Sun; the song was pressed onto her copy of the album, and the song was awesome, therefore it was always meant to be there.

Listen for yourself to the way “Firefly” ends and how “Sell My Old Clothes…” comes out of nowhere:

Sell My Old Clothes, I'm Off To Heaven

“Firefly” has the kind of finality you generally find in album closers. It opens with a fast beat and a sense of urgency before calming down halfway through, giving way to a sense of resignation. The lyrics deal with a significant other that is obviously not good for the narrator, but who provides enough fun to be worth the self-destruction, at least in the first half. The slightly downbeat second half implies that maybe the whole thing isn’t really a good idea, even as lead singer Chris Conley insists the whole thing is worth it: “to me you are the light/from a light bulb that breaks sometimes/and the tender warmth inside/is released into my life” gives way to “know I’ll burn for you tonight”.

“Sell My Old Clothes…,” on the other hand, deals with a relationship that’s already ended, and Conley’s jealousy of his former partner’s new relationship. He wonders what this new person has that he doesn’t, and then describes the amount of time he wasted trying to make it work, before deciding that it’s not worth thinking about anymore in the song’s final moments.

I suppose you could sort of make a case for the two songs being connected in terms of Conley’s fear of self-destruction leading to dissolution and then regret about the way things turned out. But even if there’s a tenuous thematic link, when you listen to the songs, it’s clear that they are from completely different recording sessions.

Compare this to Strung Out’s “Cemetery” and “Don’t Look Back” from their album An American Paradox:

Don't Look Back

Strung Out included “Don’t Look Back” on the first 10,000 copies of their album, which is kind of fun from a collector’s standpoint, but was very annoying when I had all of my CDs stolen about 10 years ago and tried to track down another copy with the bonus track. I hit up many used CD stores and asked to hear many different copies before successfully stumbling on one of those first 10,000 copies. I still listened to CDs daily in the car at the time, and never trusted the process of burning lossy MP3s to CDs, even though I don’t have anything remotely resembling  golden ears.

Note the way that “Cemetery” ostensibly has the same kind of finality that “Firefly” does, except that it has that teaser at the end, implying that maybe the band isn’t done with their set just yet. The song’s lyrics deal with feeling like the city of LA is holding the narrator in place, doomed to watch society decay around him.

“Don’t Look Back” also deals with stagnation, but is more about growing up and realizing that change is necessary. The thematic link is once again a little tenuous, but I think that the songs can be taken together to create one overarching theme: change can feel impossible, but in the end life demands it.

The music of the two songs reinforce this theme. “Cemetery” is mid-tempo, fairly downbeat for the band, and has an ethereal feeling to it. The transitional instrumental is downright haunting, complete with difficult-to-decipher spoken word. Then “Don’t Look Back” kicks in with a slightly faster transitional tempo before kicking into high gear right before the lyrics start. Unlike the jarring shift from “Firefly” to “Sell My Old Clothes…,” everything about the juxtaposition of the two songs feels intentional.

To end with “Cemetery” creates a much more pessimistic view of life than Strung Out generally employ. I feel like “Don’t Look Back” should have been a standard part of every pressing of the album, but I guess it’s kind of a nice bonus to early adopters. When Strung Out recorded Live in a Dive shortly after the release of Paradox, they included “Don’t Look Back,” making a joke about how most of the audience had no idea that the song existed, and that the band itself was confused about what exactly it was about to play.

For me, “Don’t Look Back” is the exception that proves the rule. I’ve occasionally picked up “deluxe” versions of albums that include an extra track or two, and I’m almost always disappointed by them, because bonus tracks tend to be unnecessary at best, terrible filler at worst. After all, if these bonuses were going to be great, why not include them in the album in the first place?

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