Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: Wild Pink ILYSM

Royal Mountain
Royal Mountain

Basically everything written thus far about Wild Pink’s fourth album has hit on two talking points: John Ross was diagnosed and treated for cancer during the creation of ILYSM and there’s a ton of impressive guest artists on this thing. Neither of those are really artistic accomplishments. But over the months I’ve spent with this record, I’ve come to realize that those basic facts are worth reiterating time and time again because they’re the most important things about ILYSM.

It doesn’t do this album justice to merely call it a “level up.” That’s a more straightforward, objective achievement, and that’s what happened in 2021 with A Billion Little Lights. Three years prior, on Yolk In The Fur, Wild Pink had evolved beyond their humble, scrappy slowcore origins into a sound that was scalable — songs with a heartland body and a mumblecore mind, compared to both the War On Drugs and Death Cab For Cutie in a way that felt more reductive than enticing or really even accurate. Nevertheless, everything Wild Pink did on Yolk In The Fur, they did bigger and louder on A Billion Little Lights. Their first two albums were put out on Tiny Engines and produced by Justin Pizzoferrato. A Billion Little Lights was produced with David Greenbaum, a guy whose C.V. allowed Wild Pink to mention U2, Beck, and Cage The Elephant in their press materials. Similarly, the album was released on Royal Mountain, a Canadian indie powerhouse once home to PUP, Alvvays, and Mac DeMarco.

It wasn’t Wild Pink fundamentally altering their sound and losing their identity with a bigger budget, but rather a best-case scenario for a hypothetical “major label Wild Pink album” — tighter songs and slicker production, none of which come at the expense of the things we’d come to expect from John Ross, i.e., a fiddle-laced alt-country song that pivots on “you’re a fucking baby but your pain is valid too” and Ross extracting cosmic truths while watching Temple Of Doom and Heat on repeat. Yet what felt like a no-doubt home run played out in public like a ground-rule double, an undeniably positive outcome that still felt a little unsatisfying. I could reference any number of truly beautiful moments throughout — the starlit harmonies during the coda of “Family Friends,” the seafoam breeze running through “Amalfi,” the segue from “Bigger Than Christmas” to “The Shining But Tropical” that couldn’t make their “leveling up” intentions more literal. As much as I loved A Billion Little Lights, I’m not sure it ever made itself sound truly essential for people who weren’t already Wild Pink fans.

Ross explained that he wanted ILYSM “to avoid getting too huge,” and the opening “Cahooting The Multiverse” wisely avoids going bigger than A Billion Little Lights. But it’s more in every conceivable way — deeper, more expansive, more immersive. Long walks around a suburban subdivision, a rundown car plastered with Weegee prints, a psych class on the quad, seemingly tossed-off memories of teachers gathering to share smokes during recess — they’re all worthy of cinema as Ross recalls them with hushed awe. Every single line of “Cahooting” is quotable, and I’d like to highlight perhaps the most evocative, exquisite lyrics I’ve ever heard about getting high in a dorm room:

Staring at the smoky steam
Swirl around the bathroom light
You said that there’s a nursery
Where all the stars came to life
Childhood fantasies
About dying bravely
Working out all the daydreams
Didn’t know it was a muscle that would atrophy

It’s all there, Ross’ entire life flashing before his eyes to the longing whinny of a pedal steel guitar: careless youth, the promise of escape in college, post-grad disillusionment, lyrical callbacks to “Albert Ross” and “The Shining But Tropical.” If we’re to take Ross at his word that “Cahooting The Multiverse” is pure stream of consciousness, it all leads him to an ocean of eternity, an endless expanse to ponder what lies beyond what we’ve seen with our own eyes. He hopes that, for others, it’s set to the orange glow of an upstate sunset, the sight of a spaceship breaking up on reentry, a climactic scene from a Terrence Malick movie. But as for himself, someone who’s unexpectedly found himself considering mortality in a more literal sense than he’d ever expected at his age — “when I go, it’s probably nothing.”

Throughout ILYSM, Ross’ mordant, everydude humor has a way of right-sizing himself, keeping the album from inhabiting the familiar modes of “album about cancer”: Big Statements about What It Means to live and die with dignity, carpe diem. If those types of things do it for you, well … they do it for a lot of people, and all three ILYSM singles hinted at such simple uplift in the face of tragedy. The chorus of each, respectively, “hold my hand,” “I love you so much,” “I see you better now,” all communicated by Wild Pink in their most accessible modes: “alt-country tearjerker,” strobe-lit arena-rock, and Traveling Wilburys fanfic.

Yet they all work through enough of the ugly and unknowable shit to make Ross’ heartfelt simplicity feel earned. “ILYSM” is preceded by “Hell Is Cold,” a brief foray into electronic collage where the chopped samples replicate the sounds one hears half-awake in a hospital room, whirring machinery, muffled TV and staticky chatter of nurses. (Also, you ever work in a hospital? They’re fucking freezing.) “Everything I lost/ I visit from my bed,” Ross sings, finding a chipper, homespun melody to underline, “I know I’ll be free when I die,” the band righting itself into a Ghost Is Born-esque piano vamp. “See You Better” may be the most “straightforward love song” on an album literally titled I Love You So Much, and while the song itself is straightforward, the love expressed is not — “I’m standing in the surf/ Just watching this bird/ Gliding through the barrel/ Of a wave that could kill her,” Ross sings, which doubles as a fine description of J. Mascis’ gnarled, glorious guitar solo to come.

Every Wild Pink album has a truly awesome segue, and here it comes when the familiarity of “See You Better Now” bleeds into the tracklist’s biggest departure. “Sucking On The Birdshot” is straight Jesu sludge-metal, aside from a lyrical specificity that is unprecedented in this genre and perfectly suited to the mood. A few minutes removed from watching a seabird gracefully defy death, he finds a sandhill crane mourning their mate, lying dead on the roadside — “Rare birds mated for life/ True love, singing: ‘Fuck the world’.”

ILYSM is easily the most ambitious Wild Pink record — 12 songs, nearly an hour long, the closest Ross has gotten to his long-promised double-LP concept record. Yet it’s less concerned with courting an audience than laying out a welcome mat. Ross reunited with Pizzoferrato to co-produce ILYSM, along with Peter Silberman of Antlers, whose au naturel recording of Green To Gold feels like an immediate inspiration. Whereas A Billion Little Lights aspired to be a planetarium — a dazzling replication of deep space — ILYSM experiences the cosmos as a group of friends taking in a pitch black, starry night in the Hudson Valley.

The guest list is impressive as hell, and Wild Pink had already put in the work so that every contribution embellishes upon their established strengths. The porous boundaries between Ross’ ambient instrumental project Eerie Gaits and Wild Pink allow both Bing & Ruth and Yasmin Williams to make sensible pairings. Though Ross’ vocals have never been the most versatile instrument, Julien Baker and Samantha Crain bring out his weary gravity by contrast on ILYSM’s most earthy ballads. “Simple Glyphs” just feels like a good hang with Ryley Walker, thumbing through desert blues and New Order records and Remembering Some Guys. “This hallway is getting narrower and narrower and narrower/ I’m not supposed to be here/ I’m just showing up every day like Cal Ripken, Jr.,” Ross jokes and, Kevin Costner-related conspiracies aside, that’s a pretty damn funny way to say “darkness imprisoning me.”

Nearly every one of the narrators here similarly seeks a respite from an encroaching physical doom — whether through reincarnation or time travel or escape on a UFO. The bewildering mix of detuned vocals and muted synth pads continue even as the acoustic guitars finally enter on “Abducted At The Grief Retreat,” sounding like heartland rock for the Sea Of Tranquility. “I was blissful in a free fall/ I was floating perfectly,” Ross sings as if being phoned in by an extraterrestrial translation service. “I didn’t want to come down/ I wasn’t ready to leave.” He then sings the title to his alien abductors, a fitting coda; of the many, many lucid dreams Ross has during ILYSM, this is the only where he is completely free of pain.

Minutes before, in the chorus of “St. Beater Camry” is Ross at his most gritty and Springsteenian: “So just run away/ You can make it if you leave now/ Drive all the way through the night.” Yet these words are barely whispered, as if to make clear the difference between what “Thunder Road” or “Badlands” promise and the reality of driving all the way through the night down I-95 to the vast stretches of nowhere in Florida, with little company besides an inner monologue about how things got to this point. What the narrator of “St. Beater Camry” is running from is left unsaid, though the images Ross uses to describe her sanctuary in Miami — gum-stained ashtrays, the pink sunrise on dull shipping containers — does the dirty work. It must have been that bad. An unchanging, spare and slow kick-and-snare beat slaps repeatedly against Ross like waves on a rowboat during during “War On Terror,” one of the more explicit renderings of his convalescence. “Stay in the ocean because it’s just me/ And the big moon rowing across the sky,” he sighs, before pleading with his last ounce of strength: “Don’t you let me sleep in,” as “War On Terror” blooms into an unexpected reverie of pedal steel and clarinet. It’s one of the quietest moments on the quietest songs on ILYSM and also one that knocks me out every time.

Every song on ILYSM has a moment like that one, though it rarely strives to be momentous. But “The Grass Widow In The Glass Window” — the album’s final single, out today — does feel like something Wild Pink intended to point to and say, This is everything we were trying to accomplish. ILYSM spends less time staring down death and unabashedly embracing life than it does in a liminal space of illness — not necessarily cancer, but some kind of sickness, whether it’s depression or COVID or even just a nasty hangover, something to live through with the promise of reentering real life at a later date.

And for people like Ross who might already be prone to burrowing inward, illness has a way of encouraging self-pity, self-righteousness, just nothing but trapped inside of self. He begins “The Grass Widow” seeing himself as a rotting tree giving life to vibrant fungus. “Now is not for the faint of heart/ They’ll put you on a shelf/ If you can’t just shut the fuck and be alone with yourself,” he snipes before summoning every bit of hope he’d expressed before on ILYSM to accept the uncertainty ahead: “I was a dead elm, but I don’t know now/ I wanna live here,” before Yasmin Williams reels off a lengthy, glorious guitar solo that seems to spiral endlessly upward before it just casually cuts off.

“It’s strange to move on and still miss things,” Ross intones during the ensuing epilogue of “ICLYM,” “like … everything I thought was important but isn’t anymore after the year I went through.” For the last two minutes of “The Grass Widow In The Glass Window,” Wild Pink and Williams have imagined the sound of what it might feel like to actually transcend the prison of self. But rather than ending ILYSM on a note of triumph, Ross knows the reality of what comes next — moving forward to the next thing. I hope he never has to make a record like it ever again.

ILYSM is out 10/14 via Royal Mountain Records.

Other albums of note out this week:
• Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Return Of The Dream Canteen
• The 1975’s Being Funny In A Foreign Language
• Bill Callahan’s YTI⅃AƎЯ
• King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s Laminated Denim
• Plains (Katie Crutchfield & Jess Williamson)’s I Walked With You A Ways
• Lil Baby’s It’s Only Me
• Skullcrusher’s Quiet The Room
• Todd Rundgren’s Space Force
• Birds In Row’s Gris Klein
• Ripped To Shreds’ 劇變 (Jubian)
• Palm’s Nicks And Grazes
• Mykki Blanco’s Stay Close To Music
• Tove Lo’s Dirt Femme
• Louis Cole’s Quality Over Opinion
• Mavi’s Laughing So Hard It Hurts
• Enumclaw’s Save The Baby
• Lucrecia Dalt’s ¡Ay!
• Matt Kivel’s bend reality ~ like a wave
• Skid Row’s The Gang’s All Here
• PVA’s Blush
• She/Her/Hers’s She/Her/Hers
• Charlotte Dos Santos’ Morfo
• Lightning Seeds’ See You In The Stars
• Kodaline’s Our Roots Run Deep
• Punitive Damage’s This Is The Blackout
• Field Medic’s grow your hair long if you’re wanting to see something that you can change
• Alter Bridge’s Pawns & Kings
• Sam Gendel’s blueblue
• Ashe’s Rae
• Surprise Chef’s Education & Recreation
• Rival Consoles’s Now Is
• Winter’s What Kind Of Blue Are You?
• Ribbon Stage’s HIT WITH THE MOST
• Robin Holcomb’s One Way Or Another, Vol. 1
• Meat Wave’s Malign Hex
• Sparta’s Sparta
• Betty Who’s BIG!
• Denitia’s Highways
• Wolfmanhattan Project’s Summer Forever And Ever
• Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas (Deluxe)
• Chris Isaak’s Everybody Knows It’s Christmas
• Reba McEntire’s Reba: The Ultimate Christmas Collection
• Kid Congo Powers & The Near Death Experience’s Live In St. Kilda
• Backstreet Boys’s A Very Backstreet Christmas
• PUP’s Unravels Live In Front Of Everyone They Know live EP
• Steve Queralt & Michael Smith’s Sun Moon Town EP
• Ecstatic International’s Ecstatic International EP
• Poppy’s Stagger EP

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