“All I know is that I’m tired of being clever/Everybody’s clever these days,” sings Zooey Deschanel on “Never Wanted Your Love,” from Volume 3, her latest release with M. Ward under the moniker She & Him.
At first blush, the line suggests self-aware irony. Of course she’s clever, but clever is so boring, right? It would be easy to dismiss the work of She & Him as some type of dilettante dalliance, a frivolous extension of the coy, innocent ingénue Deschanel portrays on TV. And sure, She & Him are still going to be too saccharine for those who can’t keep their cynicism in check.
But at three albums in (four counting 2011’s A Very She & Him Christmas) it is more apparent than ever that She & Him is a growing concern. As the songwriter for the group—only three of the 14 songs here are covers, she penned the rest—Deschanel deserves credit for that. Her songwriting is more solid than her sprightly voice may first divulge. She’s not tired of just being clever. She’s tired of playing games. She’s fed up with the bullshit of strained relationships. There’s substance beneath the shine.
Indeed, a lot has happened for Zooey Deschanel since Volume Two came out in 2010. In addition to the Christmas album, she’s become a bona fide sitcom star with the success of New Girl, which debuted on Fox in 2011. She also had a public split with then-husband Ben Gibbard. So it’s no surprise that some of these songs deal with dissolutions. But for She & Him, even a break-up song can be bubbly.
Their work has developed its own particular effervescent flavor. As producer, Ward fleshes out her melodies with strings, horns, background vocals and his own guitar work. Handclaps feature prominently. Guest stars abound.
The songs sway with an easy grace that recall simpler times when it made perfect sense to sing about “being your girl.” Many draw a distinct line to the girl groups of the 1960s, whose symphonic sweep placed soaring vocals at a premium and thus owe a tip of the hat to Phil Spector’s records of the day. Ward only sings on one track, the doo-woppy duet “Baby,” an unapologetically sweet love song originally released in the early ‘60s by the Raindrops. But his presence and prowess are felt throughout.
The pair has palpable fun mixing pop tunes, torch songs and vintage rock ‘n’ roll elsewhere. A bouncy disco beat propels “Together” and its sing-along chorus. They have a blast with the sock-hop beat on their cover of Blondie’s “Sunday Girl,” with Deschanel singing the last verses in French. “Turn To White” is a delicate and breezy meditation that features confident crooning and understated instrumentation that includes her ukulele. They tack on a dreamy reprise of “I Could’ve Been Your Girl” to close the album. All in all, it’s just good fun. And more than a little bit clever.