Review Summary: Bronco running wild, yeah baby, I'm on fire.
There is a tendency for people to want to dismiss Orville Peck due to him being a “gimmick”, an accusation that couldn’t be further from the truth. To be entirely fair, that accusation might seem somewhat fair on the surface - After all, he is masked cowboy that doesn’t reveal his true identity, is a clear showman with out-of-this-world outfits and a dedicated stylist, and who, despite growing up in Canada and South Africa, heavily leans into classic Americana influences and imagery a la Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley, all of which sounds unmistakably gimmicky. However, the mistake people make is thinking that Peck is trying to pretend to be someone entirely different, that he’s created a character to package and sell the music he has created. What Peck actually is doing is taking parts of him that otherwise might need to be hidden, that might go unnoticed, and is bearing them for all the world to see. He is embracing his quirks and oddities, making them both larger than life and incredibly authentic all at the same time. As Peck said in a recent interview regarding his reverence for cowboys as a child, “. . . I thought it was so cool that somebody on the outside of things, who had this otherness to them, were being celebrated as antiheroes. Their loneliness and their otherness were their strengths rather than their weaknesses.” To do what Peck does, you would have to be authentic and real and brave. Who would want to pretend to be a proud, queer man in the traditionally masculine, heteronormative world of country music?
And on Bronco
, there is no more arguing whether Peck is or isn’t a country artist. On Pony
, Peck’s debut and breakthrough album, it could be said that he had more of a post-punk sound that was country influenced. The Western persona was there in the imagery of the lyrics, the occasional yee-haw, and, of course, Peck’s appearance, but the music could not simply be qualified as “country” (although it’s not entirely clear what constitutes “country music” in the first place). Not any more. Bronco
is bold, colorful, and big country and Americana. It celebrates the storied history of the music that Peck creates. He revels in the campiest tendencies of outlaw country, invokes Elvis both sonically and lyrically, takes a stab at 70s psychedelia and traditional bluegrass, and does all of this with a wink, a nod, and an overwhelming sense of self-seriousness and clear deference to those that paved the way for him. Peck is able to flit from influence to influence, style to style, and still maintain the unique qualities that he brings to each style.
“Hexie Mountains”, a beautiful banjo-led John Denver-esque acoustic tune, is immediately followed by “Let Me Drown”, which is essentially an 80s power ballad, which is in turn followed by “Any Turn”, a barnstormer of an outlaw country song. With Bronco
being his major label debut, Peck had greater resources at his disposal and made use of them, with the sound of Bronco
being filled out with some of the best session players Nashville has to offer, as opposed to the slow burn, minimal melancholy of Pony
and shows even further musical expansion than his 2020 EP Show Pony
. The crucial key here is that this growth wasn’t excess due to additional resources, but instead was clearly intentional. It’s a logical step for Peck when there was some initial fear that he wouldn’t be able to catch that initial lightning in a bottle that was captured from Pony
. Not only has he recaptured it, he’s repurposed it in a way that feels both bigger and even more true than what even came before it. Most of what exists on Bronco
would have felt out of place on his previous releases, but in a way that signifies growth as opposed to departure.
In addition to the added musical talents, Peck’s already impressive voice is put to even more effective use on Bronco
. Primarily a stunningly low baritone with a penchant for a pretty falsetto, Peck is now making full use of his range, with belting, riffs, and that perfect falsetto appearing in song after song, with fifteen songs of fifty minutes of that voice arguably being not enough. The countrypolitan songs “C’mon Baby Cry” and “Outta Time” are perhaps where he shows his voice off the most and both songs are also a great introduction to this evolution of Orville. They are much more upbeat and bombastic than anything that was found on Pony
, but are still a perfect blend of nostalgia and modernity, with the lyrics being a country heartbreak song for “another sad boy like me
”. Peck’s songwriting prowess is shown in every song on the album, as he knows how to utilize his voice, band, and the image he’s created to its fullest extent, no matter the style or dynamics that he packages it in. This is a tried and tested formula that feels entirely fresh when placed in Peck’s hands, with a mix of theatrics and authenticity that just dances on the border of melodramaticism.
The emotions behind Peck’s powerful voice are paired perfectly with the storied tradition of storytelling in country music, a tradition that Peck gladly partakes in. There are songs recounting an abusive relationship (“Curse of the Blackened Eye”), Peck’s South African roots (“Kalahari Down”), his extensive travel (“Outta Time” and “Trample Out the Days”), and more. All of these lyrics have a clear queer twinge to it, an aspect of Peck’s identity that is crucial to understanding the art that he creates. These songs are filled with same-sex love, lust, culture, and a celebration of everything that comes with that, creating important and artistically brilliant representation in a genre that has sorely lacked it. The title track is an ultimate celebration of all parts of Peck’s identity and is really the thesis statement for Bronco
. This is Peck untamed, unafraid, and, showcasing his true self, mask and all.
Outside of his name and face, Peck has actually been very open with his history. He has shared that he grew up poor in South Africa and Canada as the son of an audio engineer, was a drummer in a number of punk bands, is a trained ballerina, and is a formal actor that has performed in touring musicals and plays in the West End. These artistic talents were crucial to creating what is
Orville Peck. From his elaborate outfits to the more than twenty fringed masks that he takes on tour to the more subtle-yet-crucial performance choices, such as the deliberate and thought out hand movements that he utilizes, everything that Orville Peck creates has been influenced by what created him. To a degree, it seems almost pointless to review his music independently, because I view Peck more as a performance artist where his music is just one facet of the entire art piece. With that being said, his music more than stands on its own in its brilliancy and, again, the fact that it is supplemented by clearly thought out performance aspects should not mean that it is viewed as anything less than genuine. Orville Peck isn’t hiding behind the glitz and glam - He is glitz and glam. But he’s also sadness and joy and human and so many other wonderful, real things. Through his music, he’s invited us to be a part of all of it. Saddle up and enjoy the ride.