Country Queer

Lifting up LGBTQ+ voices in country and Americana.

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Album Review: “Bronco,” Orville Peck

By Christopher Treacy

“As I get older, I get more afraid,” Orville Peck belts on “Let Me Drown” one of the purer ballads from his new Bronco, out this week on Columbia. The statement seems innocent enough within the context of love and intimacy, but from a creative standpoint it’s rife with irony: Bronco is brave AF.

Through 15 new songs, just over half of which were made available in advance installments, Peck reveals a great deal more of himself than was apparent on 2019’s Pony. While he may not feel ready to remove the mask, he’s certainly drawing his listeners in closer.

In the accompanying press materials, Peck says that he hit a pocket of debilitating depression as COVID began spreading. In lockdown’s ensuing stillness, he realized his personal life was a mess and contemplated walking away from his music career. Bronco is apparently the product of his having written his way out of that funk, which ends up being a more hopeful process than one might’ve assumed.

Truth is, Bronco is significantly brighter than Pony. And, as the title implies, it’s huge: hooks galore, it’s chock full of sweeping melodic gestures and vocal grandiosity. It lands exactly where you hope it will and serves just what you ordered, cooked to perfection. The portions are gigantic, but you don’t mind. All the while, it’s impeccably dressed­—snug in all the right places with boots polished and rhinestones a-gleaming. Any gaudiness is automatically forgiven. Enjoyed, even. After all, Peck’s queer. It’d almost be disappointing if he didn’t go over the top once in a while.


A Honky-Tonk of Our Own

These are stories told by a man experiencing the poise and grace of having the pain he’s portraying fixed largely in his rearview mirror. This makes Bronco‘s emotional baseline less visceral, but it also allows for the sort of careful craft that quite possibly hits the jackpot trifecta: critical accolades, big sales, and Grammy nods. If there’s anything negative to say about the album, it’s that it might just be a tad too perfect.

Which isn’t to deter from its immense creative achievement. However easy it is on the ears, Bronco still manages to remain just to the left of mainstream country, weaving modern production with retro pastiche while mostly avoiding all that is beige and basic. Peck has concocted a song cycle where moods and memories are dictated by the locations in which they transpired and, in some cases, where he went to seek solace in their wake. Parts of Colorado, Nevada, California, Florida Mississippi, and South Africa all get name-checked along with mountain ranges and coastlines; it’s a scenic ride.

And, equestrian metaphors abound, the album never stops moving. Some songs gallop and canter (“Daytona Sand,” “Any Turn,” “Lafayette,” the title track), while others trot (“C’mon Baby Cry,” “Trample Out the Days,” “Blush,” “The Curse of the Blackened Eye”) and still others lazily walk and graze(“Iris Rose,” “Let Me Drown,” and “City of Gold,” the latter of which exudes great intimacy from a refreshingly raw vocal). While remaining rooted in country, as he promised when announcing the album, the tracks are infused with elements of jangle-pop and R&B with psychedelic flourishes and moments of folksy charm. He is fully believable in every setting.

Producer Jay Joyce strikes the magical balance that keeps the album from feeling like a sellout, perpetually anchored by Peck’s earnest delivery. And if it seems a bit campy in spots, that’s because it is. But really, Peck’s just being himself. His unabashed queerness sits proudly at the corner of integrity and humor, and the album oozes plenty of both, along with enough personality to make it infinitely more compelling than anything currently happening on modern country radio. The candor and honesty permeating these songs—an ongoing reveal—erodes the barriers between Orville Peck as a character and the actual man beneath the fringed mask, whoever he may be. Sometimes it feels like we’re getting to know him at the same time he’s getting to know himself.

Throughout, his booming pipes narrate the adventures of a gay man obsessed with the myth of the American West. At the core of his dilemma is the struggle between his lone wolf mystique and a desire for the sort of loving intimacy that only comes with time and familiarity. Let’s face it, cowboys make shitty husbands. But they also make exciting lovers and storytellers. Restlessness and moving from town to town? That comes with the territory.

The biggest ballads, placed at the halfway point and the end, project vivid cinematic scenes. “Kalahari Down” kicks up dust with its sweeping strings and adolescent memories, while “All I Can Say,” a duet featuring band member Bria Salmena, paints a starry night with flesh-raising harmonies and a nod to Mazzy Star, ending Bronco with what’s easily its prettiest moment and leaving us wanting more even after a 15-track odyssey.

Put through all the paces of making an album that satisfies a major label agenda, it seems like so many things could’ve gone wrong. Instead, Peck, his band, and Joyce whip up a delicious retro stew that’ll have you clamoring for seconds. In the end, he emerges bigger, bolder, and more self-assured, with something wholly his own. It’s a fucking miracle.

Christopher Treacy has been writing about music and the music industry for 20 years. He’s contributed to The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, and Berklee College of Music’s quarterly journal, as well as myriad LGBTQ+ outlets including the Edge Media Network, Between the Lines/Pride Source, Bay Windows and In Newsweekly. He lives in Buffalo, NY.