Dead Man’s Bones only released one album, but it’s a spooky, frozen-in-time ode to the season
Autumn is the most nostalgic season: The first familiar burst of cold air on a still sun-drenched day in September leading to the first, maybe premature, sighting of pumpkins or ghost-shaped Haribo in the shops. There’s comfort in Halloween being the same every year; a 31-day long break from consuming new things, a huge pop bubble bath of indulgence to go crinkly-skinned in. The pinnacle of this is the unearthing of my “best EVER hallowe’en!!” playlist, a variant of which surely exists on everyone’s Spotify account - 52 tracks that soundtrack October almost exclusively. My only other musical constant is its own self-contained Halloween mixtape: Dead Man’s Bones by Dead Man’s Bones, a scrappy 13-track love song to the season that captures all of its wistfulness, fun, and melancholy.
Backed by Silverlake Conservatory Children's Choir and released in 2009 in the run-up to Halloween, Dead Man’s Bones is to date the only album by its namesake band, a duo consisting of a pre-mega-fame Ryan Gosling – appearing under the alias “Baby Goose” – and his friend Zach Shields. The two friends met in 2005 – Gosling was dating his Notebook co-star Rachel McAdams, while Shields was dating her sister – and bonded over a shared fascination with the supernatural. One particular mutual obsession was Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ride – a late 60s attraction narrated in lilting rhyme (sample quote: “Goblins and ghoulies from last Halloween/awaken the spirits with your tambourine!”) by the ghostly occupants of each room of a haunted house. This unlikely inspiration became the basis of an ambitious musical theatre project, scrapped when it became financially unviable, and respun as a DIY-spirited album on which Shields and Gosling played every instrument, learning cello, piano and drums as they went along.
The resulting record is as though the Haunted Mansion was squatted by a cross-spirit world cast of emo teenagers. Each song is a melancholy paean to lost love narrated by a zombie, ghost, vampire or werewolf; a parallel world where star-crossed lovers are separated by mortality and blood lust rather than attendance at schools at the other ends of town. “In the Room Where You Sleep” is a melodramatic piano stomper, set at the moment before a lover crosses over to the spirit world: Gosling is cast as the paranoid boyfriend, warning his lover that I saw something sitting on your bed/I saw something touching your head/you better run! You better hide! – his worst fears heartbreakingly proven right when it’s too late. “Young and Tragic” rings with the voices of suburban children, wishing that we were magic/so we wouldn’t be so young and tragic, bored teenagers longing for immortality or bloodlust or anything to brighten up the monotony of their lives. “Werewolf Heart” follows two lovers who have already crossed over (forever towards dark we rise) over a creepy, jarring bed of deep, crawling bass and too-high piano clinks. The album ends on a postscript of gallows romance, a nursery rhyme chant of when I think about you/flowers grow out of my grave.
I discovered Dead Man’s Bones in 2011, thanks to a CD that my friend Kate burned for me as part of a Halloween-themed care package. Its combination of romantic yearning and nostalgia rooted in my favourite holiday season had me hooked, as did the presence of Ryan Gosling, the collective mid-00s boy crush of grown-up teenage weirdos tentatively moving on from Jake Gyllenhaal. There’s always been something off-kilter about Gosling in the context of the Hollywood heartthrob – even his most mainstream performances have a sly glint to them, as though any second he’ll breaking the fourth wall to give you a knowing look – and the retrospective discovery of his spooky junkshop indie band was further proof. Looking back, the references to his ‘other’ career while in the guise of Dead Man’s Bones were always awkwardly endearing: A 2010 tweet from the band’s account reads, “Heading to Sundance with my film Blue Valentine. Gonna be tweeting from @bluevfilm. Follow...IF YOU DARE!!!”
With their scrappy vaudeville outfits, photoshoots in cried-off skeleton makeup and videos set in graveyards surrounded by trick-or-treaters, Dead Man’s Bones cultivated the sadboy Halloween aesthetic that came into prominence in the early 2000s and has developed in pop culture ever since. It’s there every time screen culture juxtaposes familiar Halloween movie imagery with underlying threat or contemporary confusion: It’s in Only Lovers Left Alive, when another heartthrob-turned-vampire musician (Tom Hiddleston) lives with an existential depression that not even the blood he craves can get rid of; and in the Fred Rowson-directed video for Years & Years’ “Foundation”, which sees singer Olly Alexander pining for a dying relationship from a rose-covered coffin at his own funeral. It’s even present in the horror-melancholia of the Twin Peaks revival, specifically the references to its own status as a nostalgic product that cut through half-remembered cosiness with visceral horror. It’s in anything that moulds a remembered childhood Halloween aesthetic around a tentatively adult combination of emotional insecurity and romantic yearning. I can’t listen to Dead Man’s Bones without seeing Donnie Darko in his skeleton suit in my peripheral vision, and not just because one of the children in the choir wears a matching suit on the album cover.
When I first heard Dead Man’s Bones two years after the album’s release, they had already stopped touring, and their online presence was ticking to a halt. After years of turning in credible performances in independent films like Lars and the Real Girl and Half Nelson, Ryan Gosling was on the cusp of the next stage of his career, breaking into mainstream Hollywood action films and romcoms, and starting his long-running collaboration with director Nicolas Winding Refn. Zach Shields started working as a producer and writer on short horror movies, eventually moving on to big-budget features. And so, Dead Man’s Bones were cut off from the real world, existing in suspended animation, never to appear again: Their Twitter account – inactive since 2012 – still links to their Myspace page.
A few years ago, I went into an internet trance trying to track down unreleased tracks, signs of another album, anything undiscovered that I could grasp at. I came across artwork for an unearthed second album and my heart momentarily lodged into my throat – until I noted its origin: a Tumblr collating imagined artwork for longed-for albums that were only ever rumoured, or never existed at all. But maybe it’s better this way – follow-ups can be overrated, just ask anyone who has sat through the abominable Donnie Darko sequel. Art that exists as a singular object, fixed in time, is more prone to romanticising, which is only fitting for an album that is already steeped in romance and yearning for the past. By not making a second album, Dead Man’s Bones preserved the first one as a pristine statement, like a pressed autumn leaf in the folds of a hardback book, to be lovingly revisited by its fans once a year, and gathering new ones every time the season comes around.