We all walk around with the possibility that, at some point, we could get cancer. After all, roughly 1.9 million Americans will receive that bad news in 2022 alone.
When John Ross was diagnosed in June 2021, at age 34, he was in the middle of creating new material for Wild Pink, the heartland indie rock project he formed in 2015. He’d started working on these songs four months earlier, almost halfway through making a record, when the disease had spread to his lymph nodes. Although he’s since recovered, having undergone two surgeries last year, Ross is still processing what happened to him.
He didn’t want to make an album exclusively about his cancer, especially because he’d already written some of the new material before his prognosis. But such a seismic event inevitably colored Ross’ art in both conscious and subconscious ways, particularly the music he composed after finding out about his illness. He found solace through recording the band’s new album, ILYSM, which was finished last November.
“I really debated whether or not I should be recording at all, given what was happening,” Ross tells SPIN over Zoom. “I went into the studio to make this record and found out that this cancer had spread. I decided to make the record anyway. My surgeon told me, ‘You should go do that because you have to just keep living. You can’t get bogged down and let it destroy you mentally.’”
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At the behest of his surgeon, Ross continued making the record, which provided an escape from the darkness surrounding his cancer. He departed his home in New York State for the Easthampton, Massachusetts studio of co-producer Justin Pizzoferrato (Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth). Over two weeks, Ross and three other musicians — bassist Arden Yonkers, drummer Dan Keegan, and pianist David Moore (of ambient outfit Bing & Ruth) — dedicated themselves to recording ILYSM.
Ross grappled with the prospect of recording, but, as he explains, “[The diagnosis] brought some real focus and a mood to the recording that would not have been there otherwise. I didn’t want it to feel heavy and everyone around me to feel like they were walking on eggshells. I didn’t want it to feel like a dark-headed thing, and it wasn’t. It was actually very fun.”
Ross’ illness may have dominated his headspace and even seeped into the lyrics, but the record’s primary theme is the fine line dividing love and obsession. For example, instant standout “Sucking on the Birdshot” examines the pain that stems from grieving a loved one, inspired by what Ross describes as “one of the heaviest things I’ve ever seen.” Sandhill cranes mate for life, and Ross noticed the corpse of one bird lying by the side of the road. It had been hit by a car, and the bird’s partner was wailing in sorrow, mourning its partner’s death. In this one song alone, he finds a way to unite the album’s main motifs: loss, love, and loyalty.
Mirroring the weight of its subject matter, “Sucking on the Birdshot” is also musically heavy. It opens with an onslaught of distorted, Loveless-like guitars and cinematic, colossal drums — a jarring yet satisfying transition from the melodic Americana on the preceding track, “See You Better Now.” ILYSM contains a bevy of harsh shifts, like the sudden digital cut at the end of “Hell Is Cold,” and that fits within the larger framework Ross had in mind for the album. He wasn’t interested in making something as polished as his earlier work, including 2021’s shimmering A Billion Little Lights, so this time he allowed room for spontaneous discovery.
“I had everything thought out ahead of time with the last record,” he says. “I didn’t want to have it planned out on this record. I think you’re less precious too, rather than sitting at home being like, ‘What do I do here?’ When you’re in the studio, you are generally more inspired anyway, more excited about what you’re doing. It’s cool to leave room for that, planning to flesh out some of the finer details in real time in the studio.”
That embrace of instinct isn’t the only critical difference between ILYSM and its predecessor. Whereas Ross describes A Billion Little Lights as “glossy” with its array of gauzy, reverb-heavy synthesizers, Wild Pink’s latest feels significantly earthier in tone. Co-producers Peter Silberman (The Antlers) and Pizzoferrato used analog gear to help Ross achieve this more naturalistic soundscape. A prodigious guest list also contributes to its lush, bucolic sound, including contributions from indie-folk songwriter Julien Baker, classically trained guitarist Yasmin Williams, and pianist Moore’s Bing & Ruth bandmate, Jeremy Viner (saxophone, clarinet).
“In addition to wanting to make a very organic-sounding record, I wanted this record to be very collaborative,” Ross explains. “I feel like my relationship to music has evolved over the years of doing Wild Pink, where I don’t really consider myself a great musician or a great guitar player. What I’m interested in is songwriting and producing. If there are people whose work I love who can do it better, then I would rather bring together great players and artists. It’s super exciting to me.”
ILYSM is also gargantuan in sheer mass: a double album that stretches out into Ross’ most towering, epic work to date. Many songs stretch past the five-minute mark and boast a suite of movements, conjuring the grandeur of an orchestra with the simplicity of a four-piece band. Clocking in at just over an hour in length, it can be a demanding listen yet no less rewarding because of it
At the end of closer “ICLYM,” a wave of relief washes over you. It’s like scaling a treacherous mountain to be rewarded with an idyllic vista. It’s like finishing a thought-provoking film but staring at the screen for the next 10 minutes, processing everything you just witnessed. It’s like coming to appreciate life after overcoming death.
“Of all the Wild Pink records, it feels the most like a rollercoaster ride, and I hope that comes across on a deeper listen,” Ross says. “I also feel like it’s a pretty heavy listen. By the end of the record, it feels like you’ve really explored. That’s how I feel when I listen back to it. I hope that people feel that way about it.”