She & Him’s seventh studio album is a loving, LP-length tribute to one of the greatest living American songwriters and singers, Brian Wilson. Melt Away – A Tribute to Brian Wilson finds Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward diving deep into the legendary artist’s extensive songbook, offering fascinating and delectable new spins on time-honored classics and overlooked gems alike. These fourteen covers are infused with the familiar magic that She & Him fans know and love, offering a new window into Wilson’s iconic catalog.
“In the spring of 2020, we started a list of our favorite Brian songs — a very long list,” the duo explains. “We chose songs without any regard to their chart performance. The obscure ones hit us just as hard as the more popular songs — and all are ripe for re-imagining, re-interpreting, and re-inventing. Brian writes songs of beauty and loneliness and vulnerability better than anyone — and by sequencing them next to popular songs of confidence and love and fun, it creates a more complete picture of life on earth.”
Melt Away is Deschanel and Ward’s follow-up to 2016’s holiday album Christmas Party, and it marks their second record of non-holiday covers since 2014’s Classics, which topped Billboard’s U.S. Folk Albums chart on release. It’s the latest display of remarkable talent from She & Him, who have wowed listeners for over 15 years with their gorgeous and warm indie-pop. As Deschanel’s maintained a successful acting career and Ward’s continued his own singular solo career as a producer and singer-songwriter, the duo continues to sound like the perfect match in the studio—with Zooey’s dramatic vocals excellently pairing with Matt’s textured, tuneful arrangements and production.
This latest collection came together at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, partially borne out of a deconstructed version of the Beach Boys’ 1967 song “Darlin’” that the pair posted to their Instagram. “It started out with a guitar phrase that was in my mind, and we made an Instagram video of us layering different elements of the song together that turned out really well,” Ward recalled, and when he performed on The Late Late Show with James Corden to promote his 2020 album Migration Stories, the host himself complimented the video and suggested the pair record more covers from Wilson’s oeuvre. “I wouldn’t say that got us to do it, but it was a nice encouragement.”
“We’re both huge Brian Wilson fans, so it made sense to make our own interpretations of these songs that we love,” Deschanel explains while discussing the process of choosing which songs in Wilson’s catalog to reinterpret. “This was a nice creative outlet for both of us.” “Learning more of his songs was always on our list of things we wanted to do,” Ward adds, “and being stuck at home was the perfect time to get into these really complicated songs. The main criteria were being able to make the songs our own. He has so many incredible songs that most people are completely unfamiliar with.”
For the first time, Deschanel and Ward worked separately from one another, piecing together Melt Away remotely due to pandemic constraints. For Zooey, the process included diving deep into her harmonic register, stacking over 30 vocal tracks on each of these fourteen songs. “When Matt sent his files, I had to think about how I was going to take the Beach Boys’ harmonies and make them our own,” she recalls. “I love writing harmonies, so for me it was using their harmonies at a jumping point and then thinking, ‘What would I do here?’” Indeed, her approach to multitracking harmonies shines on their take of the early Beach Boys classic “Please Let Me Wonder,” her solo delivery surrounded by shimmering walls of melody.
“It was about reinventing these songs that are reliant on male vocals and orchestral arrangements,” Ward says while discussing his end of the creative process. “With COVID, it was just me and my guitars and synthesizer, so it was a fun challenge to remake these songs like that—and it’s what makes this tribute different from the Beach Boys’ records.” The result is a literal labor of love that’s readily apparent in every sonic inch of Melt Away—from the gorgeous harmonies that close out “Darlin’” to the jaunty figures cut in their take on the Beach Boys’ 1970 gem “Deirdre.”
In a way, this feels like the record that She & Him have been gesturing towards their entire careers. Their golden-hour West Coast approach has always possessed a certain kinship with Brian Wilson’s lyrical outlook and melodic mastery, as well as a certain out-of-time timelessness that enables She & Him to fully embody these era-specific sounds without lapsing into pure nostalgia. By the time Brian himself emerges on Melt Away, contributing vocals to the cover of the Beach Boys’ 1965 hit “Do It Again,” he sounds perfectly at home on a record that captures the spirit of his work.
Their take on the Beach Boys’ classic Surf’s Up ballad “Til I Die” loses none of its oceanic heft, with Zooey’s vocals atop fluttering trumpet and Matt’s lovingly languid slide guitar figures. Longtime fans will recognize the inclusion of the Pet Sounds classic “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” a live staple in the She & Him setlist for years now, while their cover of Wilson’s 1988 solo tune “Melt Away,” from his self-titled album from that year, carries a distinct moonlit lilt to it.
“Matt introduced that one to me,” Deschanel explains while talking about the song’s radiant glow. “I didn’t know it but loved it instantly. The melodies are stunning.” “It’s incredibly complex—the more you get into it, it’s like a labyrinth, but one you enjoy being in,” Ward adds. And from top to bottom, Melt Away – A Tribute to Brian Wilson is a reflection not only of She and Him’s love for such a singular songwriter, but how his work fits in with their own origins as musicians.
“I was listening to him before I even knew what a radio was,” Ward recalls. “There’s something about his music that takes us back to an idyllic place. We’re both from Southern California, and he is the architect of the Southern California sound.” “I wouldn’t be here as a musician and songwriter if it weren’t for Brian Wilson,” Deschanel adds. “Since I was a little kid, I listened to his compositions and found so much joy and happiness as the soundtrack to my life.” And these loving homages will undoubtedly bring those feelings to many listeners as well.