Wild Pink’s 2018 sophomore LP Yolk in the Fur, hailed as “one of 2018’s most stunning artistic leaps for an indie rock band,” should have catapulted Wild Pink to the hallowed halls of indie music fame.
Yolk distilled Wild Pink’s unique elements from their emo-styled, self-titled 2017 debut—frontman John Ross’ plainly spoken lyrics; vocals double-tracked to lend a ghost of harmony; undulating motifs; slightly twangy, slow guitar strums—and added pedal steel, synths, and soothing hooks to create a pastoral, heartland-rock indie sound. Wild Pink sits at the intersection of folk acts like Kishi Bashi, Mappe Of, and early Bon Iver, the woozy layers of Phosphorescent, and the driving chug of The War on Drugs.
Though this sonic leap earned Wild Pink critical acclaim and a fervent fanbase, they somehow remain wildly underrated—as of the week before their third LP’s release, the band has fewer than 40,000 monthly Spotify listeners.
However, Wild Pink’s new record A Billion Little Lights (out February 19 on Royal Mountain) seems set to change that. In a surprising achievement, A Billion Little Lights is both more expansive and more cohesive than the band’s past albums. Glowing with samples, string arrangements, horns, and wistful lyrics, this record shows that Wild Pink is still reinventing their sound in the direction of true, asymptotic perfection.
The snippets of sound at the beginnings and ends of A Billion Little Lights’ singles hint at one of the most wonderful concepts on this record: the way the songs on both Side A and Side B stream into each other to form two cohesive halves. Some songs completely transform under this concept—the radiant strings and subtle key changes in the “Bigger Than Christmas” outro make the drum intro to “The Shining But Tropical” hit so much harder than in the standalone single.
The New York-based three-piece—Ross, bassist T.C. Brownell, and drummer Dan Keegan—enlisted a cadre of friends to round out the new sounds on this record. Several tracks feature rich string arrangements, best showcased in the lush outro to “Oversharers Anonymous.” Ratboys singer Julia Steiner also appears on several tracks; her small voice, perched in the background below Ross’, lends the songs an Of Monsters and Men vibe. The song “Pacific City” features Wild Pink’s first sax solo (played by Stephen Chen of San Fermin). In much the same way that it was inevitable and natural that Wild Pink would eventually become the kind of band that has saxophone solos, the sax solo starts in the background harmonies, then inevitably and naturally comes to the fore.
Some of Ross’ deadpan lyrics like “You’re a fucking baby but your pain is valid too” stand out, but poetic stories like “Out West they shot all the Buffalo / Pissed down the barrels of their red hot guns / Went around and skinned them but left them though / Their bones to blanch in the prairie sun” are often hidden in Ross’ phonetic delivery. The album is littered with these kinds of phrases, which are hard to discern without written lyrics even after listening to them several times, yet roll off the tongue in the rhythmic way Ross sings them. These lyrics are extremely satisfying in their percussiveness, almost as if Ross is using his voice as another instrument instead of an actual vehicle for words.
Though the album was finished in early 2020 before the pandemic pushed back its release, it’s hard not to interpret some lyrics as references to the lockdown/quarantine/work from home/global pandemic: the reference to online work organization site Slack in “Oversharers Anonymous,” the lines “Every day is Groundhog’s Day now / Writing in the afternoon, Temple of Doom on mute” that open the track “Family Friends,” or “Just let me die outside / Let every wall come down” in the closing track.
However, after a mentally exhausting pandemic and winter, A Billion Little Lights provides a reprieve from the claustrophobia of the indoors with its yearning for nature and open spaces. While Ross’ initial idea for a “concept double album around the mythology of the American West” never completely materialized, Ross retains the romantic Western imagery, which he associates with mental and emotional freedom: “Dreaming of the Pacific Coast / Socked in the Rockies though / Come rest your heavy heart / And quiet down your ruminating thoughts” (“Track Mud”). He also paints scenes of natural beauty that make you realize the cosmic awe of how small you are: “I can see every star / Though it makes no sense / Time spreads them out like Jasmine on a fence / Always behind / I can let go but I’m still always behind” (“Bigger Than Christmas”).
Throughout A Billion Little Lights, Ross’s lyrics constantly encourage recognizing past struggles in order to exert control over current circumstances and forge a new, more gracious path. “The Tropical But Shining” describes a plan “to float away / Face down / In the San Francisco Bay,” from “Back when your mind was wild,” but shows a progression, ending with the affirmation, “You want peace you want love / You deserve that much.” In another song, the narrator reclaims ownership of a relationship by telling another person, “Your love you gave to me / You can have it back.” Ross also recognizes the value in forgiving one’s self; in “Pacific City,” he describes “the penance I tried to pay” by worrying, then says, “So I learned about time / To make hay while the sun shined / And you deserve the good things that’ll come to you / You just need a little room.”
There are many things that make A Billion Little Lights my favorite album of 2021 so far and a likely contender for my year-end best-of—the connectedness of the songs on each side, its perfect use of pedal steel, its calming, idyll lyrics, the astounding paper-mation video for “Oversharers Anonymous.” But in the end, this album manages to be both more cohesive and more grand than Wild Pink’s previous records, hopefully elevating this band to thousands of new fans’ turntables, headphones, and car stereos as they dream of escaping to the natural beauty of the American West.
On February 19 at 8 PM CST, Wild Pink will play A Billion Little Lights in full, rearranged and stripped down, from Ross’ living room. Tickets & livestream (with 24 hour replay) are available on Bandcamp.