Tom Petty was a Southern boy who grew up in the swamps of Florida, raised by a dad who was a travelling salesman. Anthony Gonzalez is from the French Riviera resort town of Antibes, a scenic coastal city a few miles removed from the glitz and glamour of Monaco and Cannes.
Petty’s nasally drawl gave a sense of accessibility and earnestness to the catchy heartland rock he practiced over his 40-year musical career (which ended tragically and way too soon in 2017.) As the brainchild behind M83, Gonzalez crafts majestic, sweeping anthems that feel otherworldly and celestial. One artist dealt with the grounded emotions of daily life while the other seeks to transport listeners to the heavens.
The sonic intersectionality between Petty and M83 is a gossamer thin line that few people knew existed and fewer still would try to explore. But John Ross and his band Wild Pink have made a career of living in the limited real estate of that Venn diagram.
“That comparison of Tom Petty meets M83 has come up a few times recently, and I’m not going to lie — that really excites me,” said Ross, whose band plays at Bottom of the Hill Sept. 30. “We like that idea of heartland rock that’s really synthy. When we’re making music, it always starts off really simple — just an acoustic guitar. But we love to add layers and layers of sound to just see what sticks. I think that’s where you find those similarities to both Tom Petty and M83.”
The result of marrying those disparate elements — austerity and grandeur, immediacy and ephemerality — make each Wild Pink song a personal epic, an intimate diary entry that is broadcast to the stars. Over the course of three albums, Ross and Wild Pink have expanded and played with that approach, culminating in the release of this year’s A Billion Little Lights, a gorgeous, lush recording that is perhaps the best album of 2021.
Like Petty, Ross is a Florida native, but in contrast to his Sunshine State brethren, he sings in a soft, understated manner, breathing his lyrics below the waves of the surrounding sounds. The first Wild Pink album, a self-titled record that arrived in 2017, set the template for the band’s signature — Ross’ subtle, fragile voice being bolstered by symphonic settings.
The following year, Wild Pink released Yolk in the Fur, a spirited set that fearlessly built upon the world created in the debut. The hooks became more dynamic and expansive, and the lyrics morphed from overtly political messages to more universal, exploratory examinations of the human condition. For A Billion Little Lights, the stakes have been raised immeasurably — it is a work of stunning ambition and meticulous attention to detail, the natural endgame of three albums’ worth of growth.
“With this album, I really wanted to put a period to the sentence I started in 2017,” said Ross. “It was always my goal to make records that got increasingly bigger and more sweeping and cinematic. I feel like A Billion Little Lights is really the third album of a trilogy. From here, I’ll make a pivot to exploring different sounds and ideas now that this project is, in a way, complete.”
Ross always wrote songs that felt skyward and sprawling, but he’s never quite approached the heights he scales on A Billion Little Lights.
Album opener “The Wind Was Like a Train,” opens with a thick and swollen keyboard intro, before giving way to durable drumbeats and a wistful slide guitar and taking the listener on a labyrinthine journey well before the first words are sung. “The Shining But Tropical,” explodes with a burst of crashing synths and barely contained energy, emerging forth from the crackling embers of “Bigger Than Christmas,” the hushed ballad that precedes and bleeds into its sister track. The album comes to an end with the epic coda “Die Outside,” a churning call to action filled with thrilling pedal steels, dewy synths and Ross’ vocals at their most insistent and deliberate.
Over the course of the three Wild Pink albums, Ross has steadily evolved as a lyricist, and he’s particularly adept at distilling the contrarian nature of millennials, a generational cohort that can be described as both unfairly sheltered and unjustly marooned. Ross brilliantly summarizes that dichotomy in “Oversharers Anonymous,” flatly noting that “You’re a fucking baby/But your pain is valid too,” a measure that is reinforced by the song’s chorus— “Why can’t both things be true?”
“That line isn’t supposed to be overly critical, and it’s not aimed at one particular person or even a demographic,” Ross says. “I feel like there are a lot of people who, at first glance, don’t have much to complain about, but there is still this sadness, and I think that’s fair to feel that way.”
Like all Wild Pink songs, “Oversharers Anonymous” conjures up a specific setting — a pastoral idyll of rolling plains and tawny, windswept fields. Few bands can transport the listener the way that Wild Pink does — each song feels like a journey to a new locale, a place of strange serenity, where you feel like resting for a while, even if the environment feels unfamiliar.
Nowhere is that aesthetic more idealized than on “Amalfi,” an understated gem that Ross says is his favorite track from A Billion Little Lights. Here, Ross plays with his vocals, adding a ghostly echo to his delivery that, when combined with reverb-laden guitar play, conjures images of shimmering, azure seaside villages.
Those two recordings epitomize the beguiling range and nature of Wild Pink. One moment, you’re in a pickup truck overlooking the farmlands of the Midwest, the next you’re feeling the salt on your face while watching the waves crash on the Italian coast.
In the real world, those locations are thousands of miles apart, but in the Wild Pink universe they nestle comfortably side by side. You shake hands with Gonzalez while giving Petty a friendly pat on the back. With Wild Pink, you don’t need to worry about the incongruities of sound and scenery — just sit back and enjoy the view.
w/ Ratboys, Maggie Gently
Sept. 30, 8:30 p.m. $15
Bottom of the Hill