Powerfully evoking stirring elements of American music mythology, pairing them up with a superior understanding of style and presentation, and delivering it all to the rafters with a soaring voice, Orville Peck has taken what should have been a niche-appealing form of musical entertainment, and has elevated it into a burgeoning movement or phenomenon.
Aided initially by the identitarian focus of the media and culture, especially when it comes to the obsessed but often historically-inaccurate “subversion” of the country genre, Orville Peck has now elevated his game through evolutions in his approach and ample amounts of touring to where his success and appeal is only fair to characterize as meritorious, especially as the novelty of a gay man singing “country” is passe compared to the other identity-based hustles currently being perpetrated.
Orville Peck’s new album Bronco distances from some of the initial mistakes of his self-produced debut Pony, adds to the promise of the heights this project could ultimately achieve, and boasts a greater effort on the production and arrangement side, aided by his signing to the major label Columbia Records, and the onboarding of producer Jay Joyce, best known for working with artists such as Eric Church and Brothers Osborne.
Bronco also is enhanced by the addition of more country-adjacent, or more retroactive influences such as surf and mod, while also evidencing a very slight uptick of country influences themselves. At times, the songwriting also evidences a maturing that helps take Orville’s music more away from novelty, and further toward meaning and substance. The new album also discovers new ranges and possibilities for Orville Peck the singer, establishing him as a superior vocalist if nothing else.
But the underlying issues that plague the overall concept still persist in Orville Peck 2.0., even if more muted, and maybe more forgivable simply due to the ravenous appeal of the music itself. The first concern is that some of the writing is deceptively subpar and rooted more in style and hype than underlying wisdom or acuity. And second, the music remains more outside of the “country” fold than within it, while being misappropriated as a country project when an educated and objective perspective on the music is taken.
On Bronco, Orville Peck incorporates the dimension of geography in much of the writing, making many references to specific places like we commonly encounter in the compositions of touring musicians, and sometimes interchanging those locations with character such as in the well-written song “Lafayette.” The actors in Orville Peck’s songs are always coming and going, leaving broken hearts and yearning behind, or returning to them for solace. Bronco is an album in motion, and the songs of love and longing make a strong argument for Orville the artist being much more than a kitschy character actor.
But at other times, names on the map just make for catchy rhymes and convenient cures for writers block, like on the song “Kalahari Down.” The line “Travel lucky, Kawasaki,” doesn’t even rhyme, let alone make any sense, while the “Yippee-yo-ki-yay” is one of many surface stereotypical “country” signifiers Peck employs that no actual country artist would ever be caught dead uttering. They’re simply attempts to signal rural or agrarian affiliation, while conversely confirming the lack thereof, like the derivative lines of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.”
And even though the music deserves to be judged upon its own merit irrespective of genre—and when done so, Bronco and Orville Peck deserve many of the positive marks assigned by critics and fans alike—when you go so hard behind the idea that something is country, and how important/groundbreaking/historically significant it is specifically because it’s country, this is when it’s imperative to make honest assessments and assert deserved counterpoints if necessary.
Sell Bronco as some sort of slightly Southern-inspired retro version of Elvis-influenced indie rock—which is what it is—then a consensus can be met. Lean almost entirely on image, styling, and stereotype to try and sell yourself as country, and it becomes a LARP, exploiting the nostalgia Gen X’ers and Millennials feel for minor chord 90’s New Wave, and using fetching pop melodies and chorus movements to fool non-country fans into believing this is country music they actually can enjoy. The recent albums for indie rock bands such as Lord Huron and The Killers are arguably more country, or at least more “Americana” than what Bronco boasts, while also decidedly not boasting about being country or Americana at all because of the scrutiny this assigns.
But what’s so frustrating is that Orville Peck could have taken this record in a more country direction, and undercut these arguments altogether, and in certain moments, he seems to try. You appreciate the steel guitar as it struggles for attention in “C’mon Baby Cry.” The song “Outta Time” screams for the steel guitar treatment, and it’s actually in there. But you don’t hear it until the very end.
This is the classic handiwork of producer Jay Joyce. This is what he does, and has done so famously with Eric Church, and especially with the last Brothers Osborne album Skeletons, and Miranda Lambert’s Wildcard. The Jay Joyce legacy is taking country artists, and bleeding the roots out of their music to make it appeal more to rock and pop sensibilities to order to broaden the audience. Orville Peck and Bronco are no different, aside from the fact that Orville wasn’t really country to begin with. Jay Joyce’s involvement also underscores just how much Orville Peck is now very much a part of the mainstream industry. This is not an independent country project.
Pointing to Orville’s song “Any Turn,” which comes towards the end of the track list as confirmation this is actually country music just reaffirms the underlying concerns with the effort. The song is a country music cliché, clearly derived from the classic “I’ve Been Everywhere” with the monotone verses, and it again underscores that most of what is “country” about this record is erected in a facade. There is a way to take all of these retro mod elements, dark chording, and still keep it country. Check out Aaron McDonnell’s recent album Too Many Days Like Saturday Night as an example.
Many will say, and over and over, “Who cares if it’s country? Why is that even important?” It’s important because of Melissa Carper. It’s important because of Bobby Dove. It’s important because of Willi Carlisle, and many other actual country artists who also happen to be from the LGBT community, but aren’t making ostentatious displays of their music to appeal to the masses, and to fascinate the media outside of the country community. These artists are actually honoring the roots of country music, helping to keep them alive in the modern context, and often doing so virtually thanklessly, while they get overshadowed by Orville Peck and his garish mask bit.
But the sheer appeal for Orville Peck’s music is undeniable, and in many ways irrespective of genre, and is being affirmed by a wide swath of the listening public in a way that would be foolish to rebuff as empty. When you listen to a song like “C’mon Baby, Cry,” or the crooning in the lines of “The Curse of the Blackened Eye,” you can understand the universal appeal he garnering. It’s also important and deserved to praise Orville Peck the singer, and how well he establishes himself as such through this new album. Many will even ultimately declare this as their favorite album released in this calendar year, and it’s hard to argue when measuring the sheer appeal.
But it’s also important to underscore that the appeal from Orville Peck is not born of country. It comes from underlying pop and rock movements dressed up as country music because that what makes for a sexy narrative, and makes Orville Peck unique in the marketplace. It’s marketing. Being honest about that is as important as being honest about the appeal and creativity of the music, regardless of what you call it.
1 1/2 Guns Up (7/10)