When the country singer Orville Peck released “Pony,” his début album, in 2019, biographical details were kept purposely scant. He was born somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, perhaps to a show-business family. Maybe he had played drums in a Canadian punk band. Peck wore a series of leather masks with strips of dangling bordello fringe, which obscured most of his features, but not his searching blue eyes. Amateur gumshoes began sniffing around for clues to Peck’s “real” identity and found them—he has since admitted that he was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa—but his artfully cultivated mystique was part of the point, and part of the fun. His big, swooning baritone could be menacing or magnetic, depending on the lyric. Even when he was being campy or teasing, there was always real anguish in his music.
Peck’s second full-length record, “Bronco,” released this month, is gorgeous, aching, and cinematic, performed with precision and a kind of tender urgency. The new songs are cleaner, catchier, and several degrees more miserable. Over spare, elegant instrumentation—Peck is a student of Sam Phillips, Elvis Presley’s first producer, who, in the nineteen-fifties, pioneered a way of delaying and doubling echo to give recordings a spooky, pinging depth—Peck grapples with depression, heartache, and restlessness. “Darlin’ I can feel it coming every time,” he sings on “The Curse of the Blackened Eye,” a sweeping lament for another failed love affair. Peck seems to believe that this type of romantic devastation is, to some degree, inevitable. His voice is lilting, but his words are agonized: “I sat around last year, wished so many times that I would die.” He presses on the last word and lets it land with a wet thud, like a piece of overripe fruit falling from its branch.
“Bronco” was recorded live to tape in Nashville and features very few overdubs. Peck’s music contains nods not just to Presley but to Ennio Morricone, Chris Isaak, and Johnny Cash, and he has convincingly covered songs by Bobbie Gentry and Lady Gaga. His blend of pathos, bombast, and dark glamour evokes various times and places—maybe the mid-fifties, maybe the Deep South, maybe someplace where people know something about horses. Peck may not be from Mississippi, but his voice contains both humidity and blues. He’s a hard-travelling man who can’t find a reason to stay in one place, and he’s not sure he could do it anyway. On “Daytona Sand,” he leans into the apathy that comes quickly to the unmoored and the brokenhearted:
Though Peck was first signed to Sub Pop, an independent label best known for nurturing unruly rock bands such as Nirvana and Soundgarden, he is chiefly a country singer, and he released “Bronco” with Columbia. It has been a thrill to watch him further unsettle that genre, which has been undergoing an overdue self-accounting in recent years. Country music has always felt somewhat insulated from the whims of popular culture, headquartered, as it is, outside of New York and Los Angeles. Yet in the past decade it, too, has been affected by national calls for social justice and a demand for more expansive thinking regarding race and identity. Historically, Nashville’s presentation of gender has sometimes been so exaggerated as to be almost funny: men drove trucks and wore cowboy boots, and thin, pretty women wiggled into cutoffs, curled the ends of their long hair, and smiled. Likewise, the genre has not always been a welcoming place for people of color. In 2021, the twenty-eight-year-old singer Morgan Wallen, who was filmed using a racial slur while drunk, saw sales of his record “Dangerous: The Double Album” increase by more than five hundred per cent in the twenty-four hours following the incident. (“Dangerous” eventually became the best-selling album of that year, in any genre.)
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Still, change is afoot. It is increasingly possible to circumvent the dusty Nashville institutions that have long facilitated a venomous culture of gatekeeping, and women of color, such as Mickey Guyton, Rhiannon Giddens, and Yola, are finally finding more widespread recognition. Care is also being taken within the genre to avoid romanticizing the more gruesome elements of Southern identity. (Both the Dixie Chicks and Lady Antebellum revised their names in 2020, becoming the Chicks and Lady A.) Peck is gay, but he is not the first openly gay musician in country music. He has significant predecessors—including members of the band Lavender Country, whose self-titled début LP, from 1973, is widely described as the first gay-themed country record; the soulful singer and songwriter Brandi Carlile; and the genre-thwarting performer Lil Nas X—and he is quick to point out that he is not a lone pioneer. “There has always been people of color making country music, and there has always been queer cowboys and cowgirls,” he told the Times, in 2019.
But Peck is nonetheless part of a vanguard redefining the notion of the country outlaw. For decades, country has been guided by strict ideas of authenticity: the music should be unpretentious, working class, real. Yet, when musical strictures become too limiting, new work can feel timid and predictable. As hip-hop and pop have edged toward the surreal, prizing fearlessness and deviation—the most exciting young artists in those genres tend to be provocateurs, of a sort—country has remained earthbound. Peck is one of the first country artists in a long time who seems willing and able to get a little weird, beginning with the masks and carrying through to his haunting songs. Country has a long history of theatricality, and certainly there is no other genre as preoccupied with proper costuming: cowboy hats, Nudie suits, frosted tips, boot-cut jeans. The title track of “Bronco,” a pedal-steel-laden ode to being wild and free—for better and for worse—nods to the showmanship and decadence of “Aloha from Hawaii”-era Presley, a blur of sideburns and rhinestones, with gold rings cluttering his fingers. Even Peck’s galloping cadence recalls the King’s, in lines such as:
Yet Peck also shares some of Presley’s suffering. (After the filming of “Aloha from Hawaii,” in 1973, Presley’s divorce was finalized, and he overdosed on Demerol and was briefly semi-comatose. In 1977, he was found dead in an upstairs bathroom at Graceland.) On “Let Me Drown,” a mournful piano ballad, Peck sounds defeated. His voice is clear and potent; the production is hollow, quivering:
Peck is not alone in finding meaning and solace in a fantasy of the American West: the soft eroticism of cowboy culture, the commitment to constant motion, the pleasure (and vague melancholy) of trotting off into a hazy sunset, that lonesome expanse, the way it makes misery feel almost romantic. “Bronco”—much like the cowboy culture the record emulates and exalts—is equal parts exhilarated and broken. The album starts with an admission that feels as tantalizing as it does despondent. “Buddy, we got major blues,” Peck sings on “Daytona Sand.” He has said that “Bronco” was born from a fallow period in early 2020, when touring musicians were suddenly grounded by the pandemic, and the frantic pace of life on the road gave way to a kind of unsettling stillness. Peck found the experience bleak. “I was in the lowest place in my life that I’ve ever been,” he told a reporter. From that darkness, “Bronco” appeared. It is Peck’s most fully realized work so far—both his most bereaved and his most beautiful. ♦