Wild Pink albums sometimes feel like a catalog of tiny details. Jasmine on rice, songs by The Pogues, Forsythia in the spring and bones blanched in the prairie sun—an inventory of items blurring by on a roadside landscape or swirling inside your head when you’re left with the company of your thoughts. Singer/songwriter John Ross tells stories through images and objects as much as the people who own them and interact with them, much in the same way a novelist might. It’s often the goal of compacting big ideas into small statements, but Ross has never hesitated to take the long way there, taking stock of the minutiae on the journey.
That attention to detail takes on a different meaning on Wild Pink’s fourth album ILYSM. After making 2021’s A Billion Little Lights, Ross was diagnosed with cancer, putting his penchant for up-close examinations of the world around him into a different context, one in which life seems to slow down, and where the smallest things can seem suddenly beautiful and heartbreaking. In a SPIN interview, Ross said he didn’t intend to document what he was going through, and questioned whether he should have put the process on hold. “I really debated whether or not I should be recording at all, given what was happening,” he said. But in the gentle hum of opener “Cahooting in the Multiverse,” the wonder and heartbreak in his voice is palpable: “You said that there’s a nursery/Where all the stars came to life/Childhood fantasies/About dying bravely.”
ILYSM itself is a slowed-down permutation of Wild Pink’s dreamlike indie rock magic. While it is unquestionably a big album, it grows in gradual increments. Where on prior records Wild Pink would often come out of the gates with a mighty anthem, evoking vast landscapes through dreamy pop anthems, things move much more slowly here from the outset. The first three songs are all ballads, gentle and dreamlike, slowly brightening as if gradually being warmed by a rising sun. These are songs of tenderness and vulnerability, freckled with moments of quiet affection, as on “Hold My Hand,” where Julien Baker lends her own softly, warmly devastating verse: “When it’s late at night, and I don’t understand/Everything that’s happened to me … Just lay right here with me/Because I love you so much, my friend.“
The tone remains beautiful and fragile through most of the first half of the album, but ILYSM picks up steam around the title track, wherein sensitivity slowly transforms into strength. And in the process, some spectacular new sonic territory for the band, be it the new wave funk of “Abducted at the Grief Retreat,” or the squealing guitar solo courtesy of J Mascis on “See You Better Now,” or the dense squall of distortion on “Sucking on the Birdshot,” which is something of a callback to the powerful non-album single “Q. Degraw” from earlier this year. By the shoegazing closer “Iclym,” there is warmth and light at the culmination of this journey, there is reassurance and strength. And then a funny thing happens; Ross says in the final song’s spoken-word lyric, “And everything I thought was important but isn’t anymore after the year I went through.” It’s a small moment of gratitude and revelation amid a whirlwind of emotion, the quietest and most poignant of triumphs.
Label: Royal Mountain
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.