Country Queer

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“Bronco: Chapter 1” Heralds a Brighter Era for Orville Peck

By Christopher Treacy

When Orville Peck’s Sub Pop debut, Pony, dropped in 2019, it rightfully caused a stir. His forthcoming set, Bronco (Columbia, April 8), might just ignite a frenzy. 

A gifted crooner in the Roy Orbison tradition with a queer twist, Peck’s self-produced debut served up a beguiling set of tunes that merged elements of classic country with hints of dream pop and darkwave. The resulting southern gothic stew wouldn’t have seemed out of place in an episode of Twin Peaks.  

And then there was the mask. Peck tops off his eye-catching penchant for mid-century cowboy kitsch by obscuring his features, turning the tables on commercial music’s fascination with pretty faces. While the mystery makes him even more visually interesting, it also allows him to retain an unusual degree of control over how he’s perceived—we’re forced to take the character of Orville Peck at face value, thus separating him from the actual man lurking beneath. It’s thick with irony: the mask allows him to emotionally reveal himself while we’re left wondering, “Who was that masked man?”  

Listening to the first in a trio of advance chapters from Bronco, it’s clear the enigmatic singer-songwriter has shed his skin several times since Pony. The EP in between, Show Pony, came with the announcement of his having signed to Columbia. From the pared down, acoustic ballad “Kids” to his left-field interpretation of Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy” and a duet with Shania Twain, Show Pony may have lacked its predecessor’s coherence, but it yielded a glimpse of a wider realm of musical possibilities for Peck, while also building anticipation for his full length Columbia debut.


A Honky-Tonk of Our Own

In contrast, this first taster from the new album—four songs picked from a total of fifteen—fits together marvelously. Peck’s sounding mighty slick and, in this particular case, there’s nothing at all wrong with that.

Having traded up his darkwave tone for brighter sampling of soul, Bronco just might launch Peck’s emerging star into the stratosphere. Lead single “C’mon Baby Cry” is a hook-laden plea for emotional intimacy from a dude that won’t show us his face, yet there’s no mistaking the sincerity in his performance. “I can tell you’re a sad boy just like me / Baby don’t deny what your poor heart needs…just bat your eyes, baby, let me feel the pain,” he sings as the tune bursts open into a Motown stomp on the chorus. A reverb-heavy guitar swoops and riffs, as if calling to us from some non-specific place in the past.

Album opener “Daytona Sand” gallops along with a Byrds-y guitar chime as Peck simultaneously laments a tryst with some ‘big blonde’ that failed to yield a relationship, while still celebrating their magical moments of connection. Concluding that, “…some stones are better left unturned,” he again references Bobbie Gentry toward the song’s end. The rapid-fire lyric in “Any Turn” seems to depict the ups and downs of life on the road from the perspective of a man prone to distractions, while the more melancholic “Outta Time” finds Peck restless. Wary of others, he’s “…heading down the PCH to that Malibu line” for the sort of consolation that only nature can offer.

Throughout this first sampler, Peck pushes his voice. The polished production provides him with a wider safety net, and he uses it to great effect. At no point does he seem overwhelmed or out of his league. In fact, he seems remarkably at home. It would seem he’s found that magical spot where his musical personality shines even brighter on a bigger musical stage, attesting to its overall strength. Peck is no, er… one-trick Pony. The writing, meanwhile, remains unapologetically queer. But while much of his previous songwriting seemed like it was spent narrating other queer peoples’ stories, these first four songs from Bronco are undeniably personal. Giddy-Up.

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.