There are few figures more polarising than Zooey Deschanel in pop culture today. The New Girl actress and She & Him singer most definitely has her niche, choosing to burrow into it with furious dedication, and such commitment is paying off. Many may not be able to get around the fact that her singing voice falls somewhere between Vera Lynn and a twee goat, but Volume 3, Deschanel and M. Ward’s fourth album as She & Him, is home to their richest and most satisfying work to date.
Fittingly enough, it is the album’s first three tracks that burn brightest before the album begins to fade away, but ‘I’ve Got Your Number, Son’, ‘Never Wanted Your Love’ and ‘Baby’ are stupendous nonetheless. In comparison to the opening one-two punch, ‘Baby’ merely coasts along with an infectious melody for Deschanel and Ward to share, but it is still effective.
The single ‘Never Wanted Your Love’ might be She & Him’s best yet with fluttering strings to get the heart racing as Deschanel affects a lilting country twang. A cajoling bass line is the perfect compliment to Ward’s weaving guitar and Deschanel’s playful vocal. Meanwhile, the piercing harmonies that begin ‘I’ve Got Your Number, Son’ are positively Beach Boys-esque, but the songs finds Deschanel in surprisingly sardonic form, making several cutting jibes that are hidden by the song’s sunniest tendencies.
Lines like “I’m not talking to you anymore / I’m making my bed, so I can lie in it forever” from the chorus of ‘Never Wanted Your Love’ may be inherently childish and in keeping with Deschanel’s infantilised persona, but there’s room on Volume 3 for moments of guarded honesty. “What’s a man without all the attention?/ Well, he’s just a man” from ‘I’ve Got Your Number, Son’ “I like you, but you talk too much / I don’t want to be your mother and your crutch” from ‘Together’ are lines all the more effective for coming out of Deschanel’s mouth. The album relies enough on the breezy charms of Deschanel for her bluntness to go unnoticed, but there’s genuine heartbreak here. Deschanel comes across as wholly unimpressed by love, as you might expect someone reeling from a high-profile divorce.
Merely defying expectation, however, is no guarantee of actual substance, as Volume 3 proves in its latter stages when She & Him play to type and things begin to fall apart. Relying on London’s overcast permanence for pathetic fallacy is far from an original move but one Deschanel embraces wholeheartedly on the ballad ‘London’, which comes and goes never relinquishing its grim countenance, while covers of ‘Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me’ and Blondie’s ‘Sunday Girl’ are underwhelming, by-numbers recreations.
Volume 3 is an album of sickly pop compositions but also swoon-worthy retro sweetness. Strings are deployed remarkably well on the aforementioned ‘Never Wanted Your Love’ as well as on ‘I Could’ve Been Your Girl’ and the penultimate track, ‘Shadow of Love’, in particular. They serve to complement and accentuate the taut romanticism of Deschanel and Ward’s take on 60s pop without turning Volume 3 into a syrupy mush of Hollywood sentiment.
Lord knows that She & Him struggle struggle with cringe-worthy schmaltz, both lyrically and musically, sometimes, but Volume 3 is all the better for its brevity and for the sobering real-life struggles the pair have been through. This is a tight, focused example of pop songwriting that sees She & Him doing their best not to slip back into old habits, but not always succeeding.