The fourth full-length from Wild Pink, ILYSM unfolds with all the fractured beauty of a dreamscape. Over the course of 12 chameleonic tracks, the New York-bred rock band build another world inhabited by ghosts and angels and aliens, inciting a strange and lovely daze as the backdrop shifts from the mundane (subdivisions, highways, hotel parking lots) to the extraordinary (deserts, battlefields, the moon). But within its vast imagination lies a potent truth-telling on the part of singer/guitarist John Ross, whose lyrics closely examine his recent struggle with cancer. The follow-up to 2021’s A Billion Little Lights—a critically acclaimed effort praised by the likes of Pitchfork, NPR, Vulture, and Stereogum, who named it “one of the prettiest rock records of the past decade”—ILYSM emerges as a truly revelatory body of work, transforming the most painful reflection into moments of transcendence.
As Ross reveals, ILYSM’s feverish yet fragile intensity has much to do with the unmooring experience of being diagnosed with cancer early in the writing process. Now in the surveillance phase of recovery, Ross explains, “Even though I’d already started working on the record, everything took on new meaning after my diagnosis. I started writing songs that tried to make sense of the whole experience, including the love and support I felt from the people in my life—particularly my wife, which is where the title came from.”
Co-produced by Ross with Justin Pizzoferrato (Pixies, Body/Head, Speedy Ortiz) and Peter Silberman of The Antlers, ILYSM finds Wild Pink joining forces with a thrilling lineup of guest musicians, including J Mascis, Julien Baker, Ryley Walker, Yasmin Williams and Samantha Crain. As the most experimental work to date from Wild Pink—whose lineup also includes bassist Arden Yonkers and drummer Dan Keegan—the album embodies a finespun yet mercurial sound embedded with so many unexpected details (e.g., the spirited gang vocals of its title track, the slippery grooves and unearthly narration of “Abducted at the Grief Retreat,” Mascis’s frenetic solo on “See You Better Now”). Mainly recorded at Sonelab in Easthampton, Massachusetts, ILYSM ultimately marks a bold departure from the lush orchestration of A Billion Little Lights, yet still bears an endlessly immersive quality. “I wanted to make a record with more organic elements than the last one,” says Ross. “Playing live in the room together as a band was very important to me—I really leaned on them to bring their talents to the table, which they did.”
An album informed by the odd poetry of everyday life, ILYSM opens on “Cahooting The Multiverse”—a gorgeously hazy track encapsulated by Ross as “a stream-of-consciousness tune inspired by watching the light come in through the sugar maples where I live, or taking a walk by the school and seeing this little mountain of cigarettes where the teachers sneak out to smoke behind the cedar trees.” From there, Wild Pink drift into the quiet grandeur of “Hold My Hand” feat. Julien Baker, one of ILYSM’s most profoundly vulnerable moments. “I wrote that song right after my first surgery, about lying on the operating table where a member of the surgical team held my hand right before I went under,” says Ross. “It sounds kind of arbitrary, and like it shouldn’t have been as impactful as it was, but I felt very comforted and wanted to capture that loving feeling in the song.” Featuring the elegant piano work of David Moore (leader of the ambient ensemble Bing & Ruth), the result is a hypnotic piece of chamber-pop, brightened by Baker’s warm and wistful vocals.
Graced with the dreamy pedal-steel tones of Mike “Slo-Mo” Brenner (Magnolia Electric Co., Badly Drawn Boy) and the syrupy clarinet of Jeremy Viner (Bing & Ruth), “War on Terror” presents a lonesome and sprawling portrait of wandering the beach at night, once again illuminating the gently jarring effect of Ross’s lyrics (“Stay in the ocean because it’s just me/And the big moon rowing across the sky/Time is always moving to the right/And measured in things like tumor markers”). “There’s a running theme throughout this record of the moon being a constant companion, and I think that comes across in this song the most,” notes Ross. And on “Sucking on the Birdshot,” Wild Pink deliver one of ILYSM’s most devastating tracks: a six-and-a-half-minute epic driven by crashing rhythms and gloriously careening riffs.
“I was in Florida and saw a sandhill crane by the side of the road; its partner had been killed by a car, and the bird was mourning and screaming in pain—I’ve never heard anything like it,” says Ross. “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.”
For Ross, the process of bringing ILYSM to life provided a certain sense of escape, even at its most daunting moments. (“I was actually back in another cancer surgery within a week of wrapping up the recording,” he recalls. “It was pretty surreal to record this album knowing I had cancer in my lymph nodes—but since I couldn’t have the surgery any sooner, I just stuck with my studio time.”) And with the release of ILYSM, Wild Pink hope the album might supply others with their own outlet for solace and catharsis. “Writing about all this has helped me process my experience, or even just acknowledge that I still don’t completely understand how I feel about it,” says Ross. “It’s been a very confusing, overwhelming time, and hopefully it’ll offer some kind of comfort to anyone else who’s feeling overwhelmed or confused too.”