Taking his cues from classic country while cultivating his own brand of queer cowboy kitsch, Orville Peck occupies a unique niche in the world of country.
Known for his carefully cultivated and enigmatic public identity and his literal, iconic tasseled mask as much as his music, Peck has gone in an unexpected direction with his second studio album, Bronco (★★★☆☆), bouncing back from a rough couple years with a newfound sense of confidence and a surprising willingness to offer a peek behind the mask.
From the beginning, Peck has made a name for himself as a queer country star, dealing with decidedly queer subject matter in his videos and promotional material, headlining gay events and collaborating with a stable of A-list drag queens.
Despite embracing that sense of unapologetic queerness in his career writ large, it has never felt quite as prominent in his music, where it comes off as subtle and somewhat impersonal when it does show up.
Bronco is a departure here too, feeling more full-throatedly gay than his previous outings. On “Daytona Sand,” his love letter to Florida that kicks off the album, it is easy to imagine him making doe eyes when he sings, “So hit the road, big blonde/Take me home to Mississippi.”
On the viscerally relatable “Blush,” he cheekily sings about the frustrations and pitfalls of loving other men. The video for the outstanding, Roy Orbison-channeling “C’mon Baby Cry” takes a leaf from his earlier hit “Queen of the Rodeo,” featuring dramatic lighting, a deadpan sense of camp, cameos from Margaret Cho and Kornbread Jeté, and a hunky love interest for good measure.
Peck has called Bronco his “most authentic and impassioned album to date,” and he certainly comes off as more animated and three-dimensional than he did on Pony or Show Pony. Aside from the humor and unexpected playfulness be brings to the album, the arrangements are more expansive and adventurous.
Peck seems more confident in his vocals, hitting higher and more sustained notes and exploring his range in new ways that reflect and augment the album’s sense of catharsis.
Inspired by a rough couple years and keen to show off a more vulnerable side, Peck does some of his best work this time around on the album’s more heart-rending moments.
He has honed a gift for turning out a melancholy ballad, and puts that gift to good use on “Hexie Mountains,” a plaintive, nostalgic rumination on leaving somewhere you call home, and how it feels to be called back to it.
Reflecting on the passage of time, he cryptically wonders out loud, “Wouldn’t it be nice if I could let the dead stay dead.” He drops the restraint in the next track, letting his feelings come flooding over him in “Let Me Drown,” a soaring ballad featuring dramatic swells and a powerful strings section.
Peck returns to that well one more time with “City of Gold,” this time reflecting on inevitable endings with more of a shrug of acceptance.
In expanding his horizons, however, Peck does trip a bit out of the gate. The otherwise excellent “Daytona Sand” comes across a bit hokey in its lyrics, and the odd yippee-ki thrown in is a little much.
Despite the fun he has with “Lafayette,” it is hard to take it seriously when he hits the lyric, “They say there ain’t no cowboys left.” Given how smoothly he embodied his cowboy persona on his previous work, it is odd to hear him so actively remind us that yes, he is still a country singer.
Still, Peck does not really fall down until “Trample Out the Days,” a song meant as a love letter to rodeo that never quite comes together. Instead, it feels meandering and dispassionate on an otherwise impassioned album, especially compared to tracks like the evocative “Kalahari Down” or the effortlessly fun, upbeat country rock of “Any Turn” and “Blush.”
Peck has probably known for a while that his aura of mystery couldn’t have held up forever if his star continued to rise, and this was probably exactly the right place in his career to shed a bit of the mystery and let people see some other sides of Orville Peck. As well as he has done for himself with his stoic cowboy persona, it is nice to see him grow out of his careful, poised shell, and despite its uneven moments, Bronco is an album he can proudly ride out of the gate with.
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