Despite persistent cries that she remains too “precious” or “twee,” Zooey Deschanel has established herself as a versatile talent. Certain feminists may distrust her overt girlishness, but her choice of self-presentation is clearly her prerogative rather than something she has to earn. Deschanel is a stellar comic actress, playing Jess with a marked canniness behind her dinner-plate eyes in New Girl, and her collaborations with M. Ward remain clever, to a point, in their blithe conjurings of bygone eras of feel-good pop. Deschanel still comes on like Laura Nyro without the soul-crushing anxiety, her voice shimmery and ungrained but also unassertive. What once sounded blasé now sounds reticent. On an album that foregrounds Deschanel’s voice more than ever, this is a problem.
Volume 3 is formally cohesive to a fault. Each song is winsome enough, but rarely does a track distinguish itself from the easy, revivalist indie-swing of the whole. Ward sings less than on previous She & Him albums, often doubling or trebling Deschanel’s voice in lieu of playing an integral vocal role himself. This technique leaves Deschanel in a brighter spotlight than usual, and if she hits her spot, she seems to do so with some reluctance. The singer delivers her default Carly Simon impressions on “Never Wanted Your Love” and “Together,” but like a student at a recital, she seems concerned above all with not making a mistake.
Deschanel is free and easiest on two of the album’s departures from the sunny ’70s idiom: the Lesley Gore-style “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me” and Blondie’s “Sunday Girl,” one of the album’s two covers. On the former, Deschanel delivers a jazzy but ballsy performance, as though she actually has a stake in the love affair; on the latter, she musters an authentic and outgoing playfulness too rare in surrounding songs. In fact, she sounds most herself in the third verse of “Sunday Girl.” It happens to be in French, and Deschanel seems less self-conscious behind the language barrier.
Ward’s guitars ring tasteful as ever, and the tunes that build do so with a Fleet Foxes-worthy precision. But Volume 3 is a disappointment in its near-fundamentalist adherence to its own script. Like Brian Wilson, Deschanel is an adult whose lyrics return with insistence to teenage sexual politics—simple, and relatively unquestioned—at an age when surely she has richer material to work with. “I could have been your girl/You could have been my four-leaf clover” is a pretty lyric as delivered with Deschanel’s tentative swoops and tremors, but the love songs sound more like playacting than testimony. Ward is an ace arranger, but someone should tell Deschanel that She & Him isn’t a duo project in the vein of Chad & Jeremy. Ward is her Danger Mouse, and she should acknowledge her role as lead singer. If not, her music will continue to hover in limbo between listenable homage and useful individuality.