Album Review: Wild Pink – ILYSM

[Royal Mountain; 2022]

Within the lawlessness of the vast undying universe, these things called ‘plans’ are feeble and futile. But rest assured, this doesn’t have to be taken as a galaxy-sized bummer. As the main songwriter and producer of Wild Pink, John Ross shrugs an affable shrug at our nagging tempting of fate.

For the Brooklyn band’s previous album A Billion Little Lights, Ross initially wanted to release a double album that explored the circumferences of the American West with a space cadet’s inquisition. Alas, much like the Apollo 13 crew, Ross ended up losing the moon, but he did find sweet serendipity in the journey he had undertaken; curveballing elegantly between synthesis and earthly sonics, partly answering the hypothesis of what it would sound like if Trans and Harvest had been spliced into a single organism.

Ross was a few months into the recording process of follow up ILYSM when he was stricken with potentially fatal lymph cancer. Peculiarly, the music he had written for follow-up ILYSM was already of a gloomier, darker nature, so common sense might suggest that the universe was telling Ross something.

ILYSM finds the musician re-entering earth’s atmosphere in deep contemplation of life’s biggest and smallest wonders. Ross’s meek, soft-spoken murmur always forces listeners to lean into Wild Pink’s hyper-specific, oblique whimsies. The stillness of ILYSM isn’t the beckoning kind, however; it is one of affirmation. On opener “Cahooting The Multiverse”, Ross bashfully trivialises those angst-filled dorm days listening to Nirvana in the shadow of his current predicament. “Childhood fantasies / About dying bravely / Working out all the daydreams / Didn’t know it was a muscle that would atrophy.” 

Both sonically and lyrically, “Cahooting The Multiverse” paints mortality with placid ambivalence; bypassing easy sentiments such as resentment or sorrow. From quiet moments by the maple tree to orange lights by the canopy, Ross frames the soft ephemera that often slip through the nets of meaningful experiences with a quiet reverence. “Cahooting The Multiverse” was recorded with his bandmates – bassist Arden Yonkers and drummer Dan Keegan – in the same room, and you get the sense Ross urgently wanted their physical presences to elevate the songs as much as humanly possible. Truth be told, they both bring their absolute A-game, leaning into impulsive celebratory moments, details of the blink-or-you-miss-it variety. For example , when Ross sings the line “arms up in a V” you can hear Keegan gleefully bashing two of his cymbals in a giddy v-like motion. Every time it comes up, you can’t help but smile.

With Wild Pink’s long-honed chemistry as the album’s backbone, Ross sifted deeply into his rolodex for a significant cast of collaborators to adorn the tracks further. Justin Pizzoferrato (Pixies, Body/Head, Speedy Ortiz) and Peter Silberman (The Antlers) took on co-producing duties. Pedal steel wizard Mike “Slo-Mo” Brenner (Magnolia Electric Co.) was brought in as the band’s permanent fourth member. In Bing & Ruth’s David Moore and Jeremy Viner, Ross enlisted two accomplished multi-instrumentalists adding a range of melody and texture to the songs; banjo, Farfisa organ, saxophone and clarinet. Alt-folk insurgents Yasmin Williams and Ryley Walker also appear, on “The Grass Widow In The Glass Window” and “Simple Glyphs” respectively. 

Julien Baker meanwhile, lends a sweet, nurturing voice to “Hold My Hand”, a warm, homespun ballad that conveys the slippery seconds before Ross goes under narcosis for his first surgery. Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis keeps his Pavlovian guitar squalls relatively subdued on the Tom Petty-esque cruiser “See You Better Now”, which as close as a bona fide love song Wild Pink has written. With the same marvel as he gazed at the stars on A Billion Little Lights, Ross crystallises the fragility of life with heart-tugging wit. At one point, he scoffs in awed disbelief at a bird darting swiftly through “the barrel of a wave that could kill her.”

Comparable to records like Grandaddy’s The Sophtware Slump or Sparklehorse’s It’s A Wonderful Life, ILYSM captures its maker’s emotional state urgently and obtusely. Though sonically more subdued than other recent Wild Pink material (like the celestial alt-country stunner “Florida”), the transitions between the songs are often brisk and quite abrasive. They manifest like cracks formed inside a glass sculpture right before collapse. After the breezy “See You Better Now”, the geyser cannon post-rock fever dream of “Sucking On The Birdshot” blindsides you completely.  

“I was in Florida and saw a sandhill crane by the side of the road,” Ross said in the press release, about the moment that triggered “Birdshot”. “Its partner had been killed by a car, and the bird was mourning and screaming in pain—I’ve never heard anything like it. They’re these very striking birds that look like dinosaurs, and I came to learn that they mate for life, which is unusual in the animal kingdom. I had that in mind when I wrote this song about a pure expression of love in the natural world, and how your own first love can feel huge in a similar way.”

Frankly, on ILYSM,  love is a dogged prize-fighter that’s going through one helluva crash course – never more so than the title track. A song that would otherwise come off as a tacky indie folk singalong in the vein of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes, here you can feel the real life stakes snowballing behind the pastiche. Bridged by a stratospheric shoegaze-outburst, “ILYSM” unapologetically morphs into a sympho-pop epic of the Alan Parsons Project variety (Ross is a noted classic rock fan) without so much blinking.

With this kind of build-up you’d expect the overarching truism to be worthy of postcard immortality. However as the finale hits home with orotund piano stabs, Ross fumbles with a declaration of love that feels as if hastily scribbled in a private diary entry: “You disappeared under a Catalpa tree / And you moved just like smoke from wet wood”. Ross doesn’t even bother to make the words fit perfectly into the song’s pulse. It’s such an incredibly naked moment; you find yourself actively fist pumping as you would for your favorite sports highlight.

If there’s one constant thread of Wild Pink’s career so far, it is that their initial ambition – ironically – never matches whatever murky middle ground their records land. Like Wile E. Coyote, they’re perpetually – and endearingly – mired in that lofty chase. On ILYSM, that existential continuum becomes its own source of comfort: love is eternal even in its abbreviated form. As Ross sings on “Cahooting The Multiverse”, “Vacuum the desert sand for eternity / Nothing unforgiving like Sunday morning”. On days when you get to wake up next to the one you love, that big unknown universe can surely stand pat.