A few things happened this week that made me want to write a newsletter about this topic. The first was when a friend and I were texting about the Barbie film, and how much we loved Ken, and I replied "hang on, do you know Dead Man's Bones? Do you know Dead Man's Bones? Ryan Gosling's Folk Horror Do-Wop band?" Understandably she didn't, and immediately drew a comparison to Jason Segal's character's puppet opera in Forgetting Sarah Marshall which a) is an excellent touchpoint and b) full of properly good songs.
The second is that I watched season 2 of The Bear (there'll be no spoilers from the show here except a quote and a general mention of the themes, skip to the next paragraph if you want to avoid). There's an episode where two characters are talking about craft and talent and hard work, and how becoming great at something eventually becomes less about skill and more about being open to the world. The whole season follows characters as they peel individual mushrooms or polish forks, working hard at mundane, deeply boring tasks to become great at something. I loved this attention given to the hard work that underlies passion, the bits we don't see except for in montage.
The third is that while recording an episode of Juvenalia with Alan and Sarah about things we love that the other two hosts probably don't know about, I was describing this album and Sarah referred to it as a passion project, and the term just felt utterly right. Sometimes skill and talent and greatness comes from peeling individual mushrooms, but other times it's teaching yourself the cello so you can make a horror song with a children's choir.
Dead Man's Bones is a duo of good pals Ryan Gosling and Zach Shields, in collaboration with the Silverlake Conservatory Children's Choir, who released their first and only album in 2009. After bonding over their childhood fears of ghosts and obsessions with the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland, the pair embarked on this charming, haunting album that built messiness into its DNA; they never played to a click track; they limited themselves to three takes per track, adding to the gritty, wiggly tone; they played every instrument themselves, even the ones they didn't know how to play. Add to all of this a choir of literal children and you have one of the best albums of the 2000s that remains both a joy to listen to and largely forgotten.
I didn't discover the band until the early 2010s when I was down one of those YouTube rabbit holes that used to lead you to great music instead of red pill content or life hacks. I discovered so much music this way, just clicking on any video in the sidebar that had a band or artist name I'd never heard of. I had YouTube playlists that spanned thousands of songs, individual performances that I knew better than the studio tracks, demos that I can't find anymore. When I clicked into Dead Man's Bones I had no idea it was Ryan Gosling's band until around half way through the video when I thought "hang on...is that...?"
The album is dark and very fun. It has a sense of humour about itself while taking the project seriously. In The Room Where You Sleep finds Gosling, our omniscient narrator, warning you that he "saw something sitting on your bed, saw something touching your head in the room where you sleep – you better run!" Buried In Water gives the children's choir something creepy to chew on – "like a lamb to the slaughter, buried in water" – while an echoey piano plays a mournful waltz. It's a song that I didn't connect with immediately, but over the years when I returned to album I found myself completely charmed by how it opens up with the choir. Similarly, Young And Tragic has a beautiful melody sung by the kids, and uses the sounds of their voices playing as a backdrop to a bright piano.
There's a couple of great dark pop tunes here too. Lose Your Soul is all hand claps and syncopation; Pa Pa Power (which has been covered by Cat Power) is an upbeat promise that the creepy kids "won't destroy you, no we will not destroy you". The title track is probably the best example of the band's sense of humour about the endeavour, a spooky story about rows and rows of "dead man's bones – I'm talking about dead man's bones!" that also features a solo from a woman sobbing over a gentle xylophone and finger clicks.
Many actors have tried and failed to cross over into music and it's usually because they don't offer anything except a recognisable face to listeners. Dead Man's Bones isn't that – it's a genuine project of love made by two close friends who, if they weren't recording these songs and playing them live, would have been content to continue putting on performances in hotel bathrooms for their friends using the shower curtain as their stage curtain (this is true, they did this often). Zach Shields has said that after these performances their friends would say they were so funny, but they weren't joking. That's a passion project.
I've often thought that I'd love a return of Dead Man's Bones. Another album or a chance to see them live on tour, but maybe the project is best left where it is: beloved by fans who were open enough to listen to it after reading its 7.1 score on Pitchfork at the time, or sitting somewhere deep in the algorithm waiting to be discovered by a former goth who loves Neutral Milk Hotel. I like that it exists where it does, in the weird past where Ryan Gosling hadn't even made Drive yet, when Phoenix had just released 1901, when Single Ladies was on the radio. I wasn't writing about music then, just making playlists and transferring individual songs to an mp3 player. I was discovering Bright Eyes and The Shins and Wilco and The Decemberists and listening to way more drum n bass than I wanted to because it's what my friends were into. I didn't send Dead Man's Bones to anyone in case they made fun of me for liking The Guy From The Notebook's band. But this is my newsletter and this is a great album and I hope you like it too.
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