Zooey Deschanel has been writing music her whole career, but there’s a reason it was acting she first succeeded in: she’s a talented actress. OK, maybe not Meryl Streep talented, but good enough to nail the doe-eyed ingénue role again and again. This, however, is why it’s always been hard to take She & Him seriously. Like her performances, Deschanel’s songs are sturdy and well constructed, but they’re both stuck in that same emotional cul-de-sac: saccharine, cloying, precious, their sentiments forever quotable. One would expect M. Ward, the beguiling crooner of Transfigurations of Vincent and End of Amnesia, to bring gravitas to this equation, but instead he’s content to serve as the master craftsman of this consistently antiseptic project.
Ironically, it’s for all these reasons that Classics works better than any She & Him record to date (this is the fifth). Comprised of a mix of standards written as early as 1930 (“Would You Like to Take a Walk”) and as late as 1974 (“She”), and recorded with reverence and restraint, Classics posits She & Him as an exercise in curation and craftsmanship, no more, no less — and that’s exactly right. Deschanel’s a better mimic than a stylist, and here she has past performers like Billie Holiday, Dusty Springfield and Chet Baker to borrow from. Meanwhile, the song selection plays to Ward’s strengths as an arranger. The soft-shoe beat and winsome trumpets of “Time After Time” complement the pair’s sugar-and-spice vocal interplay, while “Teach Me Tonight” is coy and playful. Then there’s “Unchained Melody,” a cover record equivalent to Evil Kneival jumping Snake River Canyon. That they land it, boiling the song down to one long crescendo, is beside the point. The point is that She & Him are nostalgia mercenaries, and in that capacity, Classics suits them fine.