Zooey Deschanel slowly but surely made a mark for herself in film with odd bits and bobs in small independent films. It was in the 2003 Christmas film Elf where she had the chance to demonstrate her singing chops. She had a refreshingly different type of smooth jazz voice that would have complemented pop music perfectly. So, when she teamed up with M. Ward and created the lazily named She & Him, it was exciting to listen to what she could accomplish with her own original ditties. The result was a balanced new (but characteristically old) approach to pop/country/twang.
Volume 1 was a wonderfully balanced and expertly produced debut album—Zooey had more than a beautiful singing voice, she could write some wonderfully simple pop songs. The only problem being, could She & Him’s brand of ‘50s girl-group throwback tunes find a place in today’s ever increasingly banal and homogenous pop music sound? It could, and it did. She and Him became a veritable indie darling and shortly thereafter we got She & Him’s second outing, Volume 2. Zooey Deschanel began the course of over-exposure with her sitcom hit New Girl, playing the sweet, loveable, doe-eyed girl-next-door-who-moves-in-with-you, Jess. Her show, coupled with an underwhelming follow-up and equally saccharine and dismissible Christmas record, has left She & Him in a difficult position to prove they can push past their “goody-two-shoes” persona and deliver something different, while in keeping with their signature thematic concept.
They failed. Volume 3 is just that—the third volume of the exact same record they made back in 2008. Only this time, it’s less focused, less impactful and less sincere. It reeks of a “been-there-done-that” malaise that will surely keep you bored throughout, despite it having a few nice tunes and an exceptional rendition of Karen Chandler’s “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me”. The record begins with the incredibly familiar “I’ve Got Your Number, Son” ripe with backing “Ooos” and banal metaphorical lyrics like: “What’s a man without all the attention / Well, he’s just a man / And why do you think that no one will hear what you go to say? / Who am I without all your affection? / I’m a nobody too / I’m not above being unloved, if that’s how I got to pay.” Bored. To. Tears.
Volume 3 is so incredibly derivative of their previous two original recordings that you could easily splice in any number of older tunes in this new tracklisting, and you’d be hard pressed to discern which songs are old(er) and which are new. Moreover, each song on Volume 3 specifically sounds so much like the last that you will probably have a difficult time trying to figure out where one song ends and the next begins. Each song has the same lyrical content—a cheeky and sassy Zooey coyly reprimanding the boy of her dreams that he threw away the best thing he had going for him. She scorn you by telling you that she’s “got your number, son” or that you could have been her four-leaf clover, and she could’ve been your girl. On “Never Wanted Your Love” she proclaims: “All I know is I’m tired of being clever / Everybody’s clever these days.” Irony = lost.
She & Him burst onto the scene with some playful irreverent tunes about love and heartache, but with five years in between their debut and this latest release and the call by music fans for more substantial and meaningful music, their irreverent style feels trite and pandering—like a bad Disney film that is still trying to pass off bad princess films. Held in comparison to the staggering genius of Frank Ocean’s personal and heartbreaking Channel Orange, or Robyn’s meld of personal turmoil and bombastic beats on her breakthrough Body Talk albums, Volume 3 sounds like it less like a cute and quirky throwback to the days of lo-fi rock and roll and more like a tired ineffectual attempt at pretentious “happy” music better suited to the mid to late ‘00s when the world was coming off of the era of the singer-songwriter. The distraction was great, but if She & Him are to evolve they may need to stop making the same record over and over and try something completely new.
Although Volume 3 is a thoroughly disappointing release, there’s still some evidence that an expansion of sound could elevate this duo from being relegated to a novelty act. “Somebody Sweet to Talk To” has a few sparks of something different even if the melodic structure and boring chorus are rife with paths already taken and the verses to “Together” groove with some old R&B influences. If She & Him are hellbent in playing nostalgia to the genres and styles of the ‘50s and ‘60s, well, there is more than enough raw material for them to sift through that can keep their albums sounding different and relevant. We can only hope that they stop making “Volumes” and more “albums”.