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Wild Pink Found Beauty Where It Didn’t Exist to Make 2021’s Best Rock Album

“Sometimes I’m trying to create this amazing world in my songs that’s like, not actually reality,” says Wild Pink’s John Ross. Photo: Mitchell Wojcik

“Nothing ever means nothing,” John Ross declares on “Amalfi,” a song off his band Wild Pink’s fantastic third album, A Billion Little Lights. It could be an unofficial motto for the New York rock trio. From the band’s early EPs and 2017 debut album, Wild Pink has always committed to the idea that details matter, small or otherwise. In his songs, Ross scatters one-off thoughts and lines from conversations across detailed scenes and landscapes, often rendered in just a few lines. Specificity is his strength, whether he’s referencing a landmark or a movie.

On A Billion Little Lights, more than ever, that maxim extends to the songs themselves. “I wanted the record to sound as big as it did in my head,” Ross says on a morning phone call. That meant doubling down on the synthesizers and pedal steel that had rooted Wild Pink’s previous album, 2018’s Yolk in the Fur, while incorporating fiddle, saxophone, and backing vocals. The result is a sonic tapestry as rich as the scenes Ross creates in his lyrics. Up close, a single pedal-steel part can astonish; stepping back shows how meticulously it figures into the vast expanse of the larger song. The album as a whole works this way, with the songs flowing into one another: “The Shining but Tropical” already popped and crackled when it arrived as lead single, but it comes in like an explosion after the hushed song before it, “Bigger Than Christmas.” It all amounts to the year’s best rock album so far — and there’s no better time to experience it than today, now that Wild Pink has followed it up with another collection of glistening songs, the EP 6 Covers. Some of the choices are clear influences on A Billion Little Lights, from Bruce Springsteen (“When You’re Alone”) to Shane MacGowan and the Popes (“Lonesome Highway”), while others are just plain fun, like Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and an oddly soothing take on the Jeopardy! theme.

In interviews around Yolk in the Fur, Ross spoke of working on a concept double album about the American West as his next Wild Pink project. He realized over time that a double album would defeat the purpose — “I wanted to make something that was more concentrated,” he says now — and the West proved to be more fruitful as a jumping-off point than a strictly followed concept. Still, it shows up on the record in bursts, like the standout “Oversharers Anonymous.” The song turns a trip down a highway into a meditation on manifest destiny and its contemporary reverberations. (In a statement alongside the single, Ross named Peter Cozzens’s chronicle of the Indian Wars, The Earth Is Weeping, as an influence, along with Ken Burns’s docuseries The West.) It gives way to more than two minutes of fiddle and pedal steel, a literally transportive emotional release.

Ross gets most excited when talking about working with session players on the album: “It was kind of like opening presents on Christmas morning, because they just improved everything so much more.” Other members of Wild Pink include T.C. Brownell on bass and Dan Keegan on drums, but the band’s process of polishing its sound has led Ross to bring others into the fold. Particularly notable contributors include Mike “Slo Mo” Brenner, former steel guitarist for Jason Molina, and Julia Steiner, singer for the underrated Chicago rock band Ratboys. (Fans of Ross’s contemplative lyricism should enjoy Ratboys, former tourmates of Wild Pink who make similar attempts to find meaning in the mundane and random on songs like “Victorian Slumhouse,” off their 2020 album Printer’s Devil.) “I don’t consider myself a great guitar player — I’m not interested in playing really complex music,” Ross admits. “But to have a great player come in and just take a really cool lead part was new to me.” He’s excited to eventually play the album live with “as many people as we can afford to bring on tour.”

Lyrics have always been Ross’s primary vessel for expression. He’s an unassuming, often hushed vocalist, less interested in his delivery than how the lines arrive in a listener’s ears. As such, he prefers not to explain his lyrics’ meaning, leaving them up to the listener to interpret. Wild Pink’s 2017 self-titled album was hailed as a pessimistic chronicle of urban millennial angst, and though Yolk in the Fur brought prettier arrangements, the lyrics largely still felt bleak. A Billion Little Lights isn’t quite a hopeful record, but there’s a through-line of coming to terms with things that can, at points, feel comforting. “You deserved the good things that came to you,” Ross sings on “Pacific City.” The victorious final song, “Die Outside,” ends the album on a note of twisted contentment: “Where everything is right / just let me die outside,” Ross pleads. Its finale seems to link Wild Pink’s new outlook with the album’s basis in nature, rather than city life; coincidentally — or not — Ross recently moved from Brooklyn to Hudson, New York.

Ross has said that all his songs are based in truth — he even keeps notes on observations and lines from conversations in his phone to use in his writing. That’s still the case on A Billion Little Lights, he says, but in hindsight he wrestles with how that truth comes through in his writing. “I feel like sometimes I’m trying to create this amazing world in my songs that’s, like, not actually reality, and in that way, it feels a little fantastical to me,” he says. “Maybe I tend to look back on these memories that are in hyper-specific lyrics a little bit more idealized than they were.” Ross now calls himself “cautiously optimistic,” compared to his band’s early days — he’s still stuck on the caution, though. “In light of everything, it’s like, Man, how optimistic can anybody really feel?” he wonders.

The title of A Billion Little Lights comes from a line on “The Shining but Tropical,” a song Ross has said deals with feeling like you don’t matter in the larger scheme of the world. After opening on a character contemplating a jump from the Golden Gate Bridge, the song pivots as Ross begins contemplating the San Francisco Bay itself, teeming with life down to a cellular level. It taps into a beauty that flows through the rest of A Billion Little Lights, from Ross’s lyrical scenes to the arrangements. It’s far from an optimistic song, but that’s now what Ross set out to do — just to make the world look a bit more wonderful.

The Beauty in the Year’s Best Rock Album