Review Summary: Country music for all, just the way it should be.
The reputation of country music has gone downhill for years and years. What began as a genre whose creation was greatly contributed to and inspired by Black Americans and immigrants from countless nations, a genre that was a derivative of blues, a genre that was supposed to tell the joys, pains, and everything in between of the human experience, had become a genre of commercialism, of autotuned choruses that tell the stories that certain parts of America want to hear, all while straying further and further from the path that it grew on. It became a much-maligned genre of corporatism and anything-but-honesty. Of course, this was only a certain branch of pop-country, but it was the brand of country that made the headlines, made the radio, and, fairly or unfairly, had ties to non-inclusive and repressive politics. What started as a genre for the common person became, for the most part, a genre for a certain type of common man. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with subjective taste and like for modern-pop country, it has become disheartening to see the almost immediate dismissal of country music.
A revolution has been occurring for years just below the mainstream to reclaim country music, to bring it back to its roots of fighting oppression, of the music of outlaws, of the music that every person can find themselves in. It has been an underground battle that occasionally breaks through into mainstream consciousness, and never has country music been closer to realizing it’s full potential than in 2019. What could country music be in the modern day? This is a question that is often asked. Orville Peck is the answer to that question.
Orville Peck has a gimmick, but he is in no way shape or form that gimmick. He hides his identity behind the mask that is prominent on the cover for Pony
, a mask that flamboyantly recalls outlaw men of class Spaghetti Westerns. His outfits are often the same - highly sequined and patterned cowboy outfits of old. His image is that of a Masked-Queer-Cowboy-Country Artist, which makes sense, because Orville Peck is a Masked-Queer-Cowboy-Country Artist. His sound takes inspiration from famed composer Ennio Morricone, clearly drawing from country music of yore; not just meaning the seventies and eighties outlaw brand of Cash and Kristofferson, but one of whistling, duels, and cowpokes. This is a style that has often been defined as “masculine”, the kind of music that little boys were encouraged to hum along to as they were imagining themselves of the tough cowboy riding into save the day.
That sound is then combined with elements of shoegaze and post-punk, with slow-pacing and a dreamlike consistency draping itself over the album. The album could be described as immensely waltzable, with a temptation to mindlessly sway along finding its way to the listeners core. The lyrics are that of male lovers, drag queens, heartbreak, depression, suicide, and most other topics that would not be discussed in modern mainstream country music, nor would they be discussed in the masculine daydreams of those who want to be gunslinging-heroes. The lyrics are stories for those that had begun to be shunned by the genre, while still holding enough lessons for those of us that country music caters itself towards in terms of demographics. It is universal in its themes and sounds. While Orville Peck might hide his identity behind a mask, he bares his emotions and humanity for all to see.
Peck’s voice, without a doubt the star of the musical aspect of the album, adds to this dichotomy of a questioning what modern-day masculinity is. He boasts a powerful and booming baritone, reminiscent of Johnny Cash mixed with old-school crooners. The power and rage of his voice commands attention, but also exposes vulnerability. While sounding absolutely stunning, it also invites the listener in to the struggle that Peck and the character he creates are feeling. It is equal parts powerful narrator and person in need of help. Again, the fact that it is able to sound so theatrical and add gimmicks, such as the inclusion of a sad “Yeehaw” and snaps of a whip, all while sounding unbelievably human is a testament to Peck’s voice, creativity, and ability. While questions may be asked of how this sound can be expanded upon in future releases, it is rare to have such an unorthodox debut come together in such a perfect way.
Daniel Donato, an up-and-coming country star who opened for Peck on his most recent tour, said that 2019 was the year “country was music for everyone again”. While the genre, and especially cuts that make it to the radio, have a long way to go before it actually returns to its roots, it is heartening to see the embrace of non-traditional aspects that has been found in country music in recent years. Orville Peck breaks just about every bound of what someone imagines in a country album, but is undoubtedly a country artist. He successfully fights against the expectations that are set upon the country music system. Truly, there is nothing more country than that.