A musical outlet for quirky leading man Ryan Gosling and his slightly more civilian BFF Zach Shields, Dead Man’s Bones was destined from the beginning to draw comparisons to actors-turned-singers Scarlett Johansson and Zooey Deschanel. Thankfully, the likenesses end at SAG membership. Listening to Dead Man’s Bones, it’s easy to forget this is the same guy from The Notebook who cried, “It wasn’t over; it still isn’t over!” before lunging into a full-on tongue swap with co-star-cum-girlfriend-cum-ex-girlfriend Rachel McAdams. In fact, this album is far more likely to inspire wistful cemetery visits than raunchy celebrity-themed fantasies.
Part of its eeriness comes from the duo’s musical amateurism. This is not a clean-sounding record; it’s littered with old-house sounds and filled with delightfully sloppy reverb. The tempos are fluid (apparently the band eschewed the use of a metronome) and the playing is methodically incorrect (Gosling and Shields elected to play all instruments themselves, even those on which they had no training; PJ Harvey much?). But the sounds that spring from these musical experiments form a unique textural canvas over which the songs (which, with names like “Werewolf Head” and “My Body’s a Zombie for You,” might otherwise come across as cartoon-like) self-assemble into airy apparitions.
Despite the album’s theme of long-gone love from beyond the grave, Dead Man’s Bones is an obvious product (or poltergeist, if you prefer) of this decade. It’s got the spaciousness and spookiness of Grizzly Bear’s Yellow House, the complex instrumentation of early Arcade Fire, and a prominently featured children’s choir, à la this month’s Where The Wild Things Are soundtrack. Considering how weird and fun large groups of singing children sound, it’s easy to imagine how the band translates album tracks into their complicated and theatrical live performances (for which the music was originally written). But even without a stage counterpart, Dead Man’s Bones evokes all the right images of a haunted October, and with such sensitivity and sincerity, it’s rarely kitschy and never inappropriate.