Remembering Dead Man’s Bones
Posted: by The Editor
The clock blinks 6:52 AM back at me on October 2nd. I’m in the car, driving to work as the world slowly wakes up around me. It’s the first morning that has been cool enough to host a light frost across the grass and has caused me to crank the heat up as I make my way past the blur of traffic lights.
My favorite part about this time of day is being able to witness the yellow-gleam of the moon hang low in the sky before being swapped out by the sun’s rays at the cusp of the horizon. This morning, the crisp air and dewey atmosphere has accumulated a thick fog that’s twisted itself around the sky, creating a spooky ambience that matches the chill of October. At a red light, my fingers itch to shuffle my playlist over to a record that always makes its way into my music rotation during the ghostly season. The gothic-folk genius of Dead Man’s Bones.
The underrated, self-titled album is the dark wave dream not many know was concocted by A-list stars Zach Shields and Ryan Gosling. Formed in 2005, the strange duo messed around with baroque, ethereal rock for four years before dropping their debut (and only) album as Dead Man’s Bones. And, although, most of us have seen blips of Gosling’s musical side in arty films such as Lars and the Real Girl (2007), Blue Valentine (2010), and La La Land (2016)—and even more famously in Barbie this past summer as he burst into the iconic musical number for “I’m Just Ken” and even led a group of Kens in a spectacular acoustic rendition of Matchbox Twenty’s “Push”—this creative project was established well before Gosling’s acting career made him a household name.
The two found their sound after discovering that they shared a strong fascination with Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ride and had both been plagued by supernatural experiences as children (research into this proves that Gosling and his family moved out of a childhood home due to the idea it was haunted while Shields had to undergo therapy over his intense fear of ghosts). These memories bonded them as they were never able to shake these experiences and eventual fascination with the morbid and spooky.
So, during Dead Man’s Bones’ creation process, they sought out to incorporate that eerie, childlike whimsy that flooded them when they were younger. Their adamance on bringing in the Silverlake Conservatory Children’s Choir for the album (formed by Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers) only solidifies this tone and the record’s overarching themes of youthful apprehension and intrigue that permeates much of the runtime.
And while the idea of a children’s choir running through a track list might feel like a turn-off point for many, it somehow fits with the gothic, dream-core aspect of the album. In between Dead Man’s Bones’ flicks of romance and folk storytelling, there are coming of age elements featuring ghosts and monsters that are best viewed through a lens of innocence and mystique that, as adults, we wish could experience again for the first time.
But, what causes this self-titled record to keep its sheen 14 years later is its scratchy, amateurish feel that envelopes it. The production isn’t glossy. The vocals aren’t clean. The instruments wobble. The imperfections of it all marks a refreshing outing that doesn’t rely on pretentious ooze that many mainstream independent artists back in 2009 and still to this day try to emulate. What you see is what you get, and it’s very reminiscent of early Arcade Fire and Nick Cave in that respect. Just a spookier, dustier, darker version of them.
As the record spans 43 minutes, it’s an imperfect treat full of charm and lovable weirdness. It haunts. It drifts. It has Gosling’s vocals darken and curl around gothic themes of death and love and intimacy while Shields builds the creaky sonic landscape. And, as one really settles between the nooks and crannies of the album, you start to pick out tracks that still make the record shine over 14 years later.
Songs such as “Young and Tragic” are a solemn ode that documents the grief of adolescence once someone reaches adulthood. While “My Body’s a Zombie for You” is a hazy tune featuring small children chanting about zombies. Then there are ones like “Paper Ships,” “Lose Your Soul,” and “In the Room Where You Sleep” that are off-center and broody enough to find their perfect place wedged somewhere on an indie film’s soundtrack. “Paper Ships” takes from the folkier sides of The Shins while the other two warble around the lo-fi arena of Dirty Beaches and early John Maus.
But it’s “Pa Pa Power” that is the true showstopper of the album. Arguably the most well-know song from Dead Man’s Bones (and the only song most people knew when I stated I’d be writing an article about the record), the song encompasses everything that makes this wonderfully, strange album well. wonderfully strange. It’s introspective. it’s earwormy. it’s fast-paced yet eerie. it has a synth that burns its way into your brain. The children’s choir act as the perfect background to Gosling’s voice. It’s just a damn good song, and if there’s one track to introduce you to this album— let it be “Pa Pa Power.”
It’s a bummer that Dead Man’s Bones only produced one album. Every October when I dig myself back into the duo, I’m reminded that this folk/gothic work of art is only packaged into these twelve songs. Twelve brilliant, quirky, abnormal, catchy songs. If anything else, it just further proves that Ryan Gosling is ridiculously good at everything he sets his mind to.
So, if you’re tired of your music rotation and are craving something a little darker for the Halloween season, check out Dead Man’s Bones. And who knows, maybe (like me) you’ll end up keeping them in your permanent playlist. And maybe someday, Gosling and Shields will revisit this project… That’s not an unrealistic hope, right?
Hope Ankney | @hope_ankleknee
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