Music Review: Orville Peck, Pony

Masked cowboy Orville Peck’s vibrant debut explores country music’s new frontiers.

Country music has been yoked to a very particular look, sound, and set of tropes for most of its lifetime. Steel guitars and lonesome cowboys are familiar fixtures of the genre, but until the pseudonymous, masked singer Orville Peck came along, nobody thought to throw them in a blender with darkwave, goth, and shoegaze. The result is a long overdue reimagining of what country music can be, and whose perspectives it includes.

Peck’s incredible voice is front and center throughout his debut album Pony. His trademark mask makes his face a mystery, as if to render him a mere conduit for a doom-shrouded baritone capable of reaching celestial registers. Combine those golden pipes with killer guitar chops, and you’ve got one of the most exciting new talents to emerge in any genre.

The album opens with the downbeat, dreamy “Dead of Night,” a bittersweet showcase for Peck’s angelheaded croon. The twanging guitars of “Winds Change” mingle with Peck’s bone-deep, seen-it-all lament to remind you what you love about country music. “Turn to Hate” is a true standout on a record without a wasted note, a barn-burner of a dance song that still manages to be tinged with sorrow (and yeehaws). Although his music is steeped in country tradition, Peck finds plenty of room for experimentation within the genre’s familiar sounds and imagery. “Buffalo Run” incorporates intertwining, melodic guitars straight out of ‘80s British new wave, like a country-fried Echo and the Bunnymen; and when “Queen of the Rodeo” rides in on a wave of lush synthesizers, it recalls the Cure’s Disintegration as much as any classic record to come out of Nashville.

“Kansas (Remembers Me Now)” reaches back to the earliest days of both country and rock for a nostalgic tune that wouldn’t sound out of place as a slow dance for 1950s high schoolers. “Old River” is a short, atmospheric gospel lead-in for the haunting lost love lullaby “Big Sky.” Peck embraces his inner Roy Orbison for the doo wop-inflected ditty “Roses Are Falling,” while the kissoff song “Take You Back (The Iron Hoof Cattle Call)” seethes with pure Johnny Cash fuck-you energy down to its sardonic wit and trundling bassline. “Hope to Die” is a soulful ballad showcasing Peck’s impressive vocal range and emotive singing, while the album closer “Nothing Fades Like the Light” offers enough melancholy to fill the windswept prairie.

Peck clearly has a deep love of country music’s big horizons and lovelorn myths. What makes his take on the genre truly unique, though—apart from the unexpected shoegaze flourishes—is his centering of cowboy outsider-ness in queer experience. The lost lovers who populate his songs are men and women who, like Orville Peck’s mythical cowboy persona, dwell on the margins—the frontiers. With the earnest prayer “don’t let my sorrow turn to hate,” Peck finds the beauty in outsider ambivalence; even his most mournful songs offer room for hope.

He might have a penchant for weaving dark stories, but there are still glimmers of mirth among Orville Peck’s odes to alienation. An irresistible sense of play enlivens his cowboy kitsch and masked pageantry, but he manages, like the best pop artists, to find the soul behind the artifice—the authentic behind the mask.

Pony is available now on Sub Pop.