Saturday, December 06, 2008

Stay down, champion.

"Tall Saint"
The National

It's a truism that Bonus Tracks aren't necessarily worth your time or money. The songs left over from the recording of an album that turn up on EPs and Special Editions a year after the original album makes a critical or commercial splash. Obviously, if you're a fan you have to buy them, and everybody involved knows that--but those songs got left out for a reason, and everybody knows that too.

The National's Virginia EP is a nice cut above average, in this respect. Took me a while to give it the attention it deserved, but now I'm really happy it's out there. Some live leftovers and unfinished fragments, but a few songs that stand proudly next to the real, known stuff--to "Mistaken For Strangers," and "Secret Meeting," and the rest. When you make a moment-capturing masterpiece like Boxer, you'll have some good stuff to spare. ("Blank Slate" is another dark/funny x-ray of the universal Matt Berninger character--"gonna jump out of a cake with my heart on a string." Full of questionable notions, but luckily too scared to carry them out. I sympathize.)

And "Tall Saint" is terrific--officially a "demo," but it sounds perfectly fine. Got its string part in place and everything. And it's an example of one of the Unacknowledged Secret Genres: the Lost Title Track. It's clear, if you're looking, that "Tall Saint" was meant to make it onto Boxer. It's certainly about the same sort of person, again, and those of us who actually have the physical CD have the textual evidence. No lyric sheet for Boxer, naturally--we have a distant B&W shot of the band apparently frolicking in a meadow. (Perhaps they've returned to Ohio for a Lost Afternoon. We can hope.) Printed, we've just got two cryptic lyric fragments: "Let them all have your neck," from "Ada," and, across from it, the sardonic anononymous advice that the speaker of "Pale Saint" hears as he lies stunned on the pavement. Stay down, champion, stay down. So, really, this guy is the "boxer" of the title, the stand-in for the rest of these haunted losers and for Berninger himself. Taking punishment for a living and getting back up when he probably shouldn't.

(No less a record than OK Computer is my Secret Genre-defining example. That awkward, cryptic title comes from outtake "Palo Alto," which eventually showed up on the Airbag/How's My Driving EP. Not a bad tune, but sounds too much like The Bends--and Radiohead having a song about Silicon Valley is just too literal-minded somehow. Like if Springsteen had a song about Chrysler.)

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