From the mask (he’s never publicly revealed his face) to the impeccable showmanship, Orville Peck is a powerful enigma. And with new album ‘Bronco’, which arrives a tumultuous few years since his acclaimed 2019 debut ‘Pony’ first galloped into view, he’s back, saddled-up and raring to go.
Canada-based Peck, whose real name remains a mystery too, is anything but your standard country star – he’s an openly queer fashion icon who’s collaborated with drag queen Trixie Mattel (on a surprisingly faithful rendition of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash’s ‘Jackson’) and who told NME in a 2020 cover story that “female rappers like Doja Cat have a lot of cowboy energy”.
Peck has a talent for weaving narrative and crafting a sense of adventure, and that’s nowhere clearer than on this new record, which was partially released in two instalments earlier this year. As he compellingly puts it on the rip-roaring ‘Lafayette’: “I recall somebody saying there ain’t no cowboys left / They ain’t met me.” There is very much a sense of growth on the album – the title, charting his journey from ‘Pony’ to ‘Bronco’, is no accident – and all 15 tracks feel sonically muscular and more mature than those of its predecessor.
Peck has explained, in a statement accompanying the album, that ‘Bronco’ emerged from “writing in isolation and going through and ultimately emerging from a challenging personal time”. No wonder ‘C’mon Baby Cry’, a tale of loving and letting go, finds him belting out heartfelt lyrics in his trademark croon: “I can tell you’re a sad boy just like me / Baby, don’t deny what your poor heart needs” he sings over assured, sweeping instrumentals.
Aside from the mask, this is brazen country – it’s perhaps the most traditional Peck has ever sounded. Here he is stating his case for his genre, having lamented in that NME interview that “people have a stigma about country music”. So we have mournful ballads (‘Let Me Drown’, ‘Curse of the Blackened Eye’), barn-stormers (‘Any Turn’) and, of course, lonesome cowboys (‘Lafayette’).
This is a rich landscape: wholly modern and proudly queer. It’s an album of unabashed growth, as the artist gets in his feelings but never veers into self-pity. The masked cowboy is – paradoxically – baring his soul, unbridled and all the better for it. On ‘Bronco’, Peck wears his identity as matter-of-factly as the album’s retro-country razzle-dazzle. Allow him to sweep you away on horseback into the dusty sunset.
Release date: April 8
Record label: Columbia / Sub Pop