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On record, John Ross recounts intimate moments from his personal life in journalistic detail, singing in a lilting tenor that elevate anecdotes to the level of heartfelt art. Just listen to “Love Is Better,” a standout track from the forthcoming Yolk In The Fur, the beguiling new album out July 20 from Ross’ indie-heartland rock band, Wild Pink. (A new track, “Love Is Better,” debuts on Uproxx today, and you can check it out below.)
In the song, Ross sets a scene that takes place between two friends, one of whom has unrequited feelings for the other, in a local tavern. “Pick and eat Blue Crabs in a neighborhood the mob reputedly still haunts / And there’s a sweet old man at the bar with his eyes closed / Mouthing the words to Kim Carnes song on the radio.” Ross describes this dive over a pulsing synth-rock groove, which amps the evocative blend of romance and melancholy in the lyrics. While Ross’ delicate vocal doesn’t betray the quiet heartbreak that subsequently occurs, the stirring music conveys the protagonist’s bruised yet committed resolve. “Love is better than anything else,” Ross sings.
If the details of “Love Is Better” — the crustacean delicacy prevalent on the Atlantic coast, the reference to a semi-obscure ’80s pop artist — seem too specific to be made up, it’s because they’re not.
“It’s all real. The first verse about a man in a bar, that all really happened,” Ross said by phone earlier this month. “I don’t know how much I want to say about it, but there was a lot going on. Or maybe there wasn’t, and I was just projecting on it, but it seemed like this small scene in a bar had just exploded in my mind.”
As I learned in 2017 when I spoke with Ross about Wild Pink’s self-titled debut, one of the great sleeper records of that year, the 31-year-old singer-songwriter radiates unease whenever pressed about the meanings of his lyrics. Maybe it’s because he already reveals so much of himself in his songs — whereas Wild Pink unfolded as a series of dreamy short stories about millennial ennui in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Yolk In The Fur is a musical novel that appears to document an intense romantic (or perhaps wannabe romantic) relationship. The first five songs, including the War On Drugs-like single “Lake Erie” and the panoramic jangler “Jewels Drossed In The Runoff,” tick off without any pause between the tracks, underlining the unified, song-cycle feel of the album.
Yolk In The Fur is littered with conversational asides that appear to be lifted from actual conversations. (Ross admits that he’s constantly typing potential lyrics into his phone. “It’s the only way I know how to do it, just jotting things down and massaging them into a song,” he said. “A lot of times, nothing even rhymes.”) Many of these lines are rendered with a dry wit, like that part in the simmering rocker “The Seance on St. Augustine St.” where Ross slips in a sly generational dig: “You said boomers with hepatitis / might be spitting in your drink.” Elsewhere, Ross writes about the small, forgotten moments that accumulate into life’s defining disappointments. “But you don’t have to say you love me back ,” he sings in the slashing “John Mosby Hollow Drive.” “It’s enough when you hear me out / because you’ll exhaust yourself somehow .”
On Wild Pink’s two albums, Ross is a chronic over-sharer, a habit he over-corrects in conversation whenever he’s subsequently asked to explain himself.
“Yeah, it’s ironic, isn’t it?” Ross said, a trace of a chuckle lurking behind his words. “I’m pretty timid in my personal life, and also I like to keep more of the mystery about a song. It can resonate with more people, even if it is incredibly specific.
Ross’ shy demeanor, hyper-personal lyrics, and insistently pretty and surging melodies have prompted critics to liken Wild Pink to Death Cab For Cutie and “the golden age of TV soundtracks,” typified by the ’00s teen soap The OC. But Ross considers himself a student of classic-rock singer-songwriters like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Paul Simon, and Jackson Browne, who is referenced directly on Yolk In The Fur‘s title track. (“I don’t know exactly what it means, but I know that it’s evocative of something,” Ross said cryptically of the album title. “To me, it’s about protecting something vulnerable.”)
All of those songwriters, like Ross, are storytellers who spin autobiographical tales into tunes that speak to the overall human condition. Unlike Ross, those guys also managed to be massively successful pop stars. But in his own modest way — Wild Pink has a small but growing following that deserves to expand dramatically once Yolk In The Fur is released — Ross aspires to a kind of grandiosity.
Musically, Yolk In The Furis a sizable leap from the first Wild Pink record, which is composed of contemplative, mid-tempo songs that evoke ’90s slowcore far more than ’70s arena-rock. For the new record, Ross carried over his experiments with synthesizers in the side project Eerie Gaits to his work in Wild Pink, teasing out the band’s threadbare soundscapes with layers of swelling, atmospheric guitar and keyboard sounds, finally putting the band’s music on equal footing with Ross’ lyrics. Several tracks, including highlights like “Love Is Better” and the poppy New Romantics throwback “There Is A Ledger,” started as home recordings that Ross brought to the band during the making of Yolk In The Fur last December.
“I just really wanted to make something bigger in scope,” he said. “I think that obviously, ’70s rock is the heyday of rock and those records are enormous, and every now and then there’s a record like The Monitor. I don’t think the lyrics are becoming less of a focus for me, but making more interesting textures and sound palettes or whatever, that’s becoming way more important to me.”
Ross’ next project might sound even bigger than Yolk In The Fur — he’s talked in interviews about working on a double-album about the American West, a kind of 21st century Desperado, though naturally, he’s reticent to divulge too much about it. For the time being, he’s focused on making music that has “a shot at being timeless as opposed to timely,” a quality that reverberates throughout the excellent, yearning Yolk In The Fur, a personal statement about real-life minutia that signifies profound, larger-than-life truths.