For all the talk about actors and crossovers that has dogged the duo, She & Him is first and foremost about fandom. Zooey Deschanel never hid her love of bright, shiny pop baubles, and she never appeared overly self-conscious onstage. She didn’t come across as an actor trying to convince us she was a singer but more like a music nerd who really loved all those do-do-do’s and ba-ba-ba’s. Even before she and M. Ward covered Dusty Springfield, Herb Alpert, and Johnny Mathis on 2014’s Classics, you knew these were some of their favorite artists, because those references lived right on the surface of every song they ever recorded or performed. They never bothered to hide their enthusiasm, which along with the distinctive timbre of Deschanel’s voice gave their songs a sense of novelty and purpose—a reason for existing that went beyond just being a vanity project for her or a side project for him.
Fourteen years into their career together, however, there’s not a whole lot of novelty or purpose left. They haven’t released an album of originals in nearly a decade, and they haven’t released anything at all since their second(!) holiday album, six years ago. Their new one, Melt Away: A Tribute to Brian Wilson, is another covers record—not a catchall like Classics that shows the range of their fandom, but one devoted exclusively to Brian Wilson. The only surprise is that they didn’t get around to it sooner, given how large the Beach Boys looms in their music. “Zooey and I can wholeheartedly agree that we love everything they’ve ever done,” Ward told the Los Angeles Times in 2010. “Those harmonies and chord changes? That’s the sound of California.” Wilson’s influence was reflected in the sunny Golden State innocence of their early originals like “This Is Not a Test” and “I Was Made for You,” and it shows in the obscurities they choose for Melt Away. This won’t be the only Wilson tribute to include “Don’t Worry Baby” or “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” but how many others will give space to lesser-known gems like “Good to My Baby” and “Deirdre”? Melt Away, to their credit, is a fan’s playlist.
And yet, there’s a boldness missing from these new versions. It’s not just a matter of being overly reverent or taking too few liberties. In fact, Deschanel and Ward obviously love all the details that go into Wilson’s arrangements, and they take pains to get everything just so: the sitar and piano flourishes on “Kiss Me Baby,” the sobbing guitar on “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder),” the revving hot-rod rhythm that drives “Do It Again” (which features newly recorded vocals by Wilson himself). But it’s all a little too tidy, a little too perfect. Their version of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is bracing simply for sounding so stilted and awkward; it’s a live/studio hybrid, reminiscent of Simon & Garfunkel’s cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love,” that pits their careful orchestrations against what sounds like an audience’s slightly behind-the-beat clapping. It doesn’t really work; in fact, it prevents you from being carried away by the song or the daydream of finding the right someone to spend a life with. But it’s still the album’s most audacious moment.
Maybe they just weren’t made for these times, or maybe the problem has more to do with size. When Wilson wrote and scored these songs, he made them sound larger than life, adding grandeur to passing daydreams and everyday yearnings. But She & Him’s covers all remain simply life-size, even when the harmonies explode on “Kiss Me Baby” or when closer “Meant for You” pledges lifelong devotion. There’s a warm twee intimacy to the best moments on Melt Away, but it’s just not enough. There’s nothing to suggest that pop music can play a profound role in a listener’s life, beyond just vibe music for a dinner party. Toggling between merely pleasant and overly precious, Melt Away is such a low-stakes endeavor that it never even registers as a comeback.
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