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Revisiting the genius of Ryan Gosling's band Dead Man's Bones

So Hollywood legend, Ryan Gosling, is also a musician of worth. Considering Gosling has starred in arty classics such as Half NelsonBlue ValentineDrive and The Place Beyond the Pines, there’s no real surprise that Gosling has a penchant for the audio side of the creative arts alongside the visual. It’s a strange one, as the duo, Dead Man’s Bones, were formed in 2005 and released their sole album in 2009 before Gosling had truly established himself as an actor.

There have been many instances of actors trying and failing to break into the music business, with Kiefer Sutherland and Bruce Willis ranking amongst some of the most god-awful. But Gosling, like with everything he does, surprised us in the best of ways, and broke away from the norm. The album was released on the 6th of October 2009 via ANTI records, and is of considerable artistic merit.

A haunting and meandering effort, across its 43 minute run time, Dead Man’s Bones, is a surprising and beautiful piece of work. There are flecks of Ariel Pink, Frances the Mute-era Mars Volta and, dare I say it, early Wavves. The choice to collaborate with the Silverlake Conservatory Children’s Choir, which was formed by Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, helps to augment the album’s childish yet brooding sound. Think Damien from The Omen, just much less satanic. It’s gothic, romantic and full of earworms. 

If this ‘spooky’ feel seems contrived, it isn’t. After Gosling met drummer Zach Shields in 2005, the pair realised that they shared a mutual obsession with the iconic Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland. It turns out both were affected by the concept of the supernatural as children. Shields was so terrified by ghosts in his early years that he was put through therapy and Gosling’s parents moved out of their childhood home because they believed it to be haunted.

Neither of them grew out of their fascination with the morbid, and this sense of unity is what influenced the album’s overarching themes. The use of the children’s choir also augments the youthful sense of intrigue and excitement, and, 12 years after release, it is a refreshing listen amongst all of the terribly self-gratifying and serious music that pervades culture.

Ask Tim Burton, combining the love story with tales of ghosts and monsters works a treat, and it contains that childish innocence that, as adults, we all wish we retained. ‘Young & Tragic’ is a wonderful ode to this sentiment. 

The pair played all the instruments on the record, including ones they were new to. Striving for artistic greatness, they imposed strict rules on themselves during the recording process, including not playing with a click track, and not doing more than three takes on a part. They let the imperfections highlight the strengths of the music. This confidence in their product shines through clearly.  

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A raw, zeitgeist sound, it fits in with the kind of production that bands such as The Drums were utilising at the time. There’s also colours of Fiona Apple, Faust and The Shins on tracks such as ‘Paper Shins’. It’s got a rough, simple beauty that music has moved on from, but was very en vogue in 2009 For some reason it really feels as if it at least one of the songs should have been included on the soundtrack for 500 Days of Summer. Now you know what we mean.

The highlight of the album is undoubted ‘Pa Pa Power’, which has just reentered the collective consciousness after Cat Power covered it. It’s catchy, introspective and features that incredibly ’80s synth line, which helps to confirm that in many ways, it was the children in Gosling and Shields that were writing the album.

The most interesting element of the record is that it had a great impact on the most unlikely of people. The record was cited as an inspiration by extreme/black metal pioneers, Behemoth on their acclaimed 2018 album I Loved You At Your Darkest. “I stole that idea from Ryan Gosling — I don’t know if you know that actor. Not only is he a great actor, he’s also a great musician,” Behemoth frontman Nergal told Metalshop when discussing the idea to utilise the collective voices of children. 

“He’s got his own band. I believe he’s got one record under his belt. It’s him, it’s very folky, it’s very like Me And That Man (Nergal’s dark folk project), and he’s got all these kids choirs. That’s how I got inspired to use kids choir in Me And That Man,” he continued. It didn’t end there either. Even Southampton punks Our Time Down Here, who is now known as Creeper, cited the album as an inspiration.

A brilliant opus, meshing the gothic with the baroque, folk and everything else, it shows that there isn’t really anything Ryan Gosling can’t do. It also goes some way in dispelling the myth that child actors are doomed. It might seem weird to say, but after listening you’ll heed that Ryan Gosling is a true artist.

Listen to Dead Man’s Bones in full below.