Orville Peck, Bronco, and Where We Find Connection
Notes on my evolving relationship with Orville Peck
Orville Peck by Julia Johnson.
I bought Orville Peck's debut album Pony in 2019, where it has remained the only CD in my car to this very day in 2022. There's a lot to love about Pony and its accompanying music videos, featuring masked cowboy and country western singer Orville Peck as he navigates the dreamy, down-tempo world of life in the margins. The tragic romance between gay hustlers in the desert, the struggles of a forlorn drag queen, small-town heartbreak and unspoken truths. To me, from the moody twang that opens “Dead of Night” to the triumphant crescendo of “Hope to Die,” Pony is an album of emotional highs and crushing lows. Here, queer life, love, tragedy, joy, and death are elevated to the level of opera. Camp opera, dripping with neon light, rhinestones, and fringe, but opera nonetheless.
But I had a hard time recommending it.
The thing about Orville Peck, the artist, is he prioritizes sincerity. Sincerity comes up in just about every interview I've seen or read over the three years I've played Pony in my car. And on my phone. And on my laptop. Orville Peck is totally sincere in the naked, uncomfortable feelings he croons about, and I greatly enjoy his music and videos. The totality of the Orville Peck project, with all its carefully manicured narratives and beautiful visuals, is something I've truly taken a lot of creative influence and personal comfort from since I first put Pony on in my car.
As Peck told Coveteur in 2020:
“People think I’m mysterious now, but before I started writing the music, I never spoke about my feelings, my personal life, to anybody,” he reveals. “So to me, if I force myself to be as exposed as I possibly can in my music, the fact that I cover half my face kind of evens it out to where I feel like I’m at a similar level of sincerity to other artists that don’t wear a mask.”
All of that said, there is an impenetrable layer of artifice to Orville Peck, the character and the artist, that can make it difficult to fully buy into the sincerity of Pony, and his 2020 follow-up, the EP Show Pony. The fringe black leather mask, the rhinestone-drenched nudie suit, the cowboy hat, the big gold rings. It is a performance, and, for me, it's difficult to connect to.
I say this confidently with a stack of unfinished, unreadable essays about Pony and Show Pony to show for myself. Since 2019, I've tried to write about Orville Peck, and every time, I've failed to say anything but the obvious. We've all heard it before, how he mixes shoegaze with steel guitar to create sleepy, sorrowful, country-infused dreamscapes. How he uses camp aesthetics. How he draws from country's lavender past to hold space for narratives that are often rejected by the mainstream conservative vision of country western music.
Because...Orville Peck isn't real to me on Pony or Show Pony. He's a performer on a stage, at home on a chunky CRT television playing in the background of Twin Peaks. He's a strange character you see in Los Angeles or Austin or New York City by night, a glint of rhinestone in a crowd as you pass by in a taxi. He just....isn't a person.
There's something that holds you at arm's length, a kind of self-consciousness that belies the bravado and the call for sincerity. The sweeping opera of tracks like “Dead of Night,” “Queen of the Rodeo,” “Hope to Die,” and his soaring cover of “Fancy” from his follow-up EP are the extremities where Peck flourishes as an artist. They're as big and bold and larger than life as he is. In the quieter moments between these tracks, the intimate connective tissue that strings these feeling together, just feel less impactful. When he manages to wink and smile at the camera in tracks like “Take You Back (Iron Hoof Cattle Call)” or his duet with Shania Twain on “Legends Never Die,” it's fun but it just...doesn't hit the same way.
Everything else gets swallowed up by campy gay cowboy opera and, at least for me, I felt like he needed to pick one or the other. The extremes of a “Hope to Die,” or the quiet melancholy of a “Big Sky.” Together, one overshadows the other, and his body of work just feels uneven.
And then Bronco came out.
I feel like Bronco is the album you should start with, because it feels the most real.
Trickling out in a steady stream of singles and videos throughout February and March, Bronco finally arrived in April 2022. This album, according to interviews with Peck, is the most sincere, honest, and real release of his career so far. Born from a period of personal strife and artistic uncertainty, by Peck's own words, Bronco is where he decided to say "Fuck it" and trust himself.
"I wrote this album coming out of a really terrible depression,” Orville recalls. “I was ready to stop making music, my tour had just been canceled because of Covid, my personal life was in shambles. And so I kind of did this big overhaul with my life.” This involved writing songs solely for himself, “for the first time in ages,” without trying to second-guess what Orville Peck should sound like. In time, a “beautifully cathartic” body of work started to take shape. “It just felt absolutely freeing,” he says. “And when I looked at the end result, I thought, 'This is just so unrestrained and untamed and wild and free. And at that point it was obvious. I was like, ‘I think this one's called ‘Bronco’’.”
Now, I personally don't need to "feel" like I know a musician to enjoy their music, the same way I don't need to "relate" to a character to enjoy a story. But if I believed Orville Peck, the artist, is a real person who has gone through some shit and lived to tell the tale during Pony, then Bronco feels like a hushed 3AM conversation around a kitchen table with a friend. In a period of my life that I find myself drawn almost entirely to radically sincere, emotionally bare, and psychologically complicated works, Bronco just...hits.
Peck's latest album crisscrosses real places and the deep emotional spaces they inhabit with songs like “Daytona Sand,” “Blush,” “Kalahari Down,” “City of Gold,” and “Hexie Mountains.” “Outta Time,” “Lafayette,” “Any Turn,” and the title track “Bronco” are restless songs. They talk about coming and going, leaving towns that feel too small and dealing with feelings that are too big to be contained any longer. Peck playfully complains about men and his (many) failed romances in “Blush” and “Daytona Sand,” while “The Curse of the Blackened Eye” wrestles with the lingering scars of an abusive relationship with understated honesty.
One of the big highlights of the album for me is the upbeat tempo. Peck struts around and serenades crying cowboys in “C'mon Baby, Cry,” a straight-up ‘60s throwback bop that encapsulates the bigger tonal shift. Even for all the heartbreak, there's a bright, driving energy across the album with splashes of '60s pop and surf rock infused with plodding drums and twangy steel guitars. Even in emotional depths rounded out by orchestral accompaniments and lonely harmonicas, the tempo unifies the mood from the first track to the last.
Given the range of sounds and styles it pulls from, Bronco just feels freer in its composition. The album is willing to have more fun in its influences and follow more emotional threads, from the melancholic to the irreverent. It makes the sadness stand out with more to contrast against it, while the humor and self-awareness comes across more clearly as part of Peck's narrative choice.
For me, Bronco's biggest success is the shift from Orville Peck as a larger than life narrator to the embodied subject of these winding tales of heartbreak, self-destruction, self-reflection, and healing. While he was always present in Pony and Show Pony, Peck is laid bare in a way he wasn't previously. Peck sings about abusive ex-boyfriends and his therapist's advice, loves let go and triumphs hard won. You feel it in your chest when his voice frays on the final lyrics of “Kalahari Down,” or soars on the chorus of “Let Me Drown.” “Hexie Mountains” feels like a conversation with himself, the kind I’ve had in my own head on long drives when I have nothing but my own hurt feelings to keep me company.
I've listened to Bronco at least a dozen times at time of writing, and it's hard to keep the tears out of my eyes when I get to those tracks. Then “City of Gold” and “All I Can Say” come in as the final two tracks after the brief respite of “Any Turn” to keep me from getting too comfortable. Peck lets you sit with the feelings, not pulling any punches or drifting in focus to soften their blow.
That's what I think I love most about Bronco. I sincerely don't think any of the tracks will ever overshadow my bottomless love for “Dead of Night'' and “Hope to Die,” which are two of my favorite songs of all time for all the power and passion put behind them. But I feel every track so deeply in a way that I never quite could with Peck's previous releases. From its fun-loving highs to its deep and mournful lows, Bronco just hits.
And it hits.
And it hits.
And it doesn't let you go.
For that, I'm so very glad Peck finally felt comfortable with himself enough to put this album out. I hope he continues to trust himself and his own story, because when he does, he manages to come up with something that will stay with me for a very long time.