Dead Man’s Bones

Dead Man’s Bones

(Anti-; 2009)

By Dom Sinacola | 28 October 2009

As a gimmick, Dead Man’s Bones automatically vaults from self-serving lark to unexpected success, partly because it’s accomplished (even, um, good) but mostly because it’s sincerely (even a bit too sincerely) odd. What Ryan Gosling and Zach Shields have concocted, hiccup-chortling into the hydra heads of toil and trouble, is a post-consumer content heap of showtunes, all things Americana stored under the stairs, barbershop doo-wop, community theater, and bite-sized grab bags of Halloween candy on sale at Walgreen’s. Indebted to Tom Waits, Alice Cooper, the Langley Schools Music Project, Roy Orbison, and a Twilight sensitivity for conservative goth—all of which injects a healthy degree of big-top spectacle while not getting too scary—the album is a helter skelter of B-movie horror and cheap thrills, just the right balance of esoteric and familiar.

What’s more, by stipulating that everything gets recorded live, in no further than three takes, without click tracks, by self-attenuating “non-musicians,” this well-known actor/stud and his pal and a children’s choir have made something of an ode to amateurism—or at least a plangent argument for, and testament to, the kind of accessibility that makes the blogosphere lucrative and me a music critic. Dead Man’s Bones is a salient defense for autodidactic heart. It’s also fascinating for it.

But as a quirky indie pop record? It’s just pretty good: one stand-out triumph (“My Body’s a Zombie for You”), a mess of filler, a stagnant thematic concept, and a short series of fleeting, mostly catchy tunes over, it seems, as soon as they’ve begun to take hold. Which goes far enough to both promote and limit the appeal of Dead Man’s Bones: it’s worth hearing, and worth writing about, even asymptotically, and goddamn if you won’t be surprised at how well it all works, but what makes it worth hearing is often what keeps it from being really good. Maybe they don’t have it in them; maybe this is, impressively enough, the most of which they’re capable and future releases less staked in “ideas,” more in technical adroitness, could follow. That’d be cool; that’d sound less overtly shitty, shittiness being a point of pride here, what with the three takes part and the actors not being able to play instruments but still doing so part, and what’s already been covered above part.

What’d be nice to include in our definition of to what exactly this record amounts would be an account of the stage production this collection of songs was originally meant to soundtrack. Since that production doesn’t exist, and what exists in its stead is a record (on a record label whose name itself seems unfinished) released sooner than it had been sufficiently blogged about, Dead Man’s Bones feels dramatically undernourished. Its greatest moments, and they are Legion, swarm about untethered, unable to find a core worth orbiting; there is no other way to explain how the titular yelp and abiding choral comedown of “My Body’s a Zombie” or the dread hidden in the polystyrene cocoon of each keyboard bleat throughout “Pa Pa Power,” individually rousing and memorable, become almost chronologically impotent when considered in the album’s wake.

Poor “Buried in Water” is the song most abused by the conceit at hand, drowning in peripheral noise—no other way to describe it—sometimes magnificent and sometimes pulled by its hair to a denouement it shouldn’t have, the child-choir sometimes heavenly and sometimes sing-in-the-shower dreadful. Too often tracks follow this template, being, simply: boozy euphoria tripped up and shattered gutter-ways by what-could-have-been butting heads with what-is-possible. Dead Man’s Bones is about death, right, and about love, testing where one touches the other, flirting with sensations similar and enduring the inability to confront or frankly deal with that intimacy. Had this record a thicker dramatic arc or something less confining than a spreadsheet of rules, then maybe the songs wouldn’t so inevitably miss their obvious marks. Because as often as Gosling and Shields pursue ridiculous tangents, their breadth is still limited.

And I know that’s kinda the point, as if their breath, too, is limited. Excited by more of a “why not?” attitude than any less rhetorical “but fucking why?” the album is urgent in ways few releases seem capable of this year, a document whose sole artistic pedigree is…fear? This fear of irrelevance, of incapability, of not being heard, of death and getting old and losing one’s innocence, of losing the ecstasy of one passing, immediate moment: it’s all embedded in Gosling’s and Shields’ desires to branch into places they may just not belong. That they come out the other end with little in the way of evidence to suggest they shouldn’t is a startling revelation itself; that this album could have been so much better is a morbid bummer.