01. Calamity Song 3:42
02. Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye 3:55
03. Shankill Butchers 4:10
04. June Hymn 4:15
05. This Is Why We Fight 4:28
06. Shiny 5:12
07. The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned) 5:53
08. When U Love Somebody 3:10
The iTunes Session has quickly differentiated itself from other tired live EP formats (Unplugged anyone?) through consistently strong releases from the likes of Vampire Weekend, Deerhunter, and The Hold Steady to name just a few. The Decemberists, no stranger to releasing albums in various formats (whether that be traditional LP, EP, EP in parts, solo tour only cover EPs, or solo live albums), seem a natural selection to take part in an iTunes Session, as the band is peaking in commercial appeal while, arguably, maintaining a firm commitment to artistic integrity and risk taking. Sure, The King Is Dead may be a step backward in terms of conceptualization, but from concept album to their deeply enjoyable three-part Always A Bridesmaid EP to the R.E.M.-infused, Gillian Welch-featuring, songwriting emphasized album that is The King Is Dead, continuing to zig and zag is bold and restless, showing the traits of a band that is not yet ready to settle.
The Decemberists’ iTunes session is the ideal release coming from this band, right now. Mixing in songs old, new, and a couple of covers, The Decemberists are able to showcase their strengths, while demonstrating that they still have a few tricks up their sleeves. Album highlight, “Shankill Butchers,” is a revelation, taking the solid (though somewhat forgettable) acoustic track from The Crane Wife and expanding it to a full-band rendition, allowing the blood to pump in its veins, revealing a robust and muscular song, complete with the harsh tones of an upright bass. Other album deep-cut, “The Hazards Of Love IV (The Drowned),” gets new life with a faithful and emotional rendition anchored by Meloy’s sparing vocals, which seem to only be getting stronger with age. Though a lot of negative comments have been thrown at The Decemberists’ rock opera The Hazards Of Love, the biggest complaint is that the songs are not strong enough to stand on their own. “The Hazards Of Love IV (The Drowned)” here argues otherwise.
Of the three songs representing The King Is Dead, “June Hymn” has the most to prove, hidden on the back half of the album, generally left off of festival setlists, and usually reserved for second encores. On iTunes Session, “June Hymn” swings for the fences and succeeds, providing intimacy that bridges petty factors of time and space, bringing Meloy into your bedroom or car to share his delicate melody with you. In contrast, “Calamity Song” and “This Is Why We Fight” fully rock, not sparing anything, unlike their traditionally stripped-down, session versions.
But, the real treats of The iTunes Session come in the shape of two covers. The better of the two, a subtle rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye,” that sees Meloy dueting with the capable Sara Watkins and allowing the song to gradually build without any cheap plays to tug at the heartstrings. Rather, it is Chris Funk’s nuanced slide guitar that rounds out the affecting number. And The Fruit Bats’ “When U Love Somebody” may not be the most necessary or strongest cover ever recorded, but serves as another gift to diehard fans. The album, though, doesn’t need to be seen through this same filter. As a whole, the release can be seen as a suitable introduction to new fans or as supplementary material to casual fans that are only familiar with the most well-known of The Decemberists’ tunes. Either way, iTunes Sessions does it again with a rewarding little surprise that none of us were really anticipating, but are plenty glad to add to the collection.