The lonesome cowboy. Who is he? What’s he doing? Where’s he going? We may never know as he passes through town and rides off into the sunset. Orville Peck takes this classic image of the mysterious cowboy a step further, donning a leather mask and his trusty Stetson, Peck leaves his fans with the same questions.
Peck’s debut album, Pony, continues in creating a lonesome cowboy narrative by letting his songs do the talking. Citing influence from Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson as much as Morrisey and Swans, Pony delivers a stark and sprawling sound that plays into the enigma and persona that Peck has created for himself. When Peck himself is shrouded in mystery, the songs that makeup Pony serve as the lazy, flickering fire, casting slivers of light onto the ambiguous life of the masked man known as Orville Peck.
Pony’s opener and lead single, “Dead of Night,” is a vast and weary track depicting the travels of a pair of highwaymen. Peck’s guitar mosies along in a somewhat simple tune, as the croon of the masked cowpoke turns this simple torch song into a track full of fleeting love and sadness so viscous that Peck’s tale begins to feel like a reality.
“Turn to Hate” finds Peck wrestling with the fact that he has the freedom of being an outsider wherever he goes, independent and a lone rider. Yet, with that, comes a desire for normalcy and stability. Like the end of an old western, Peck must decide to ride on or hold tight to those he loves. “Walking out towards the gate / You’ll all be stars now, just you wait / Done enough to take the bait / Don’t let my sorrow turn to hate.” Despite the somewhat downtrodden lyrics, it’s all wrapped up in a foot-stomping, hoedown-worthy tune.
Throughout the entirety of Pony, there is a romanticization of the west and cowboy culture tied neatly together with an almost supernatural haze. “Kansas (Remembers Me Now),” is a prime example of this phenomenon. With a sorrowful guitar that seems to drag on into an abyss, Peck’s otherworldly voice guides the track through a Lynchian maze of funhouse mirrors and leaves listeners at The Black Lodge as a disorienting static washes over Peck declaring that “Kansas remembers me now.”
In the toe-tapping, barn-raising “Take You Back (The Iron Hoof Cattle Call),” Peck embraces the clichés of old westerns and outlaw flicks. Incorporating cartoon gunshots, whip cracks and a whistle that’s only place is the moment right before a duel at high noon, “Take You Back (The Iron Hoof Cattle Call)” finds the lone ranger seemingly breaking the character of the intimidating gunslinger for a more animated bandleader.
Peck has the innate ability to create a very cinematic and surreal experience with his songwriting. Pony shines a light on the masked and mysterious persona that is Orville Peck, giving us a glimpse into the secretive life of the veiled vaquero. Yet even after 40 minutes of music, there is still very much left to the imagination. But if there’s one thing to come away with after Peck’s debut; the cowboy ethos is very much alive and well in Peck and his posse.