Pony is a current and modern album coloured with nostalgia for something Orville Peck nor his fans ever actually experienced.
What do you know about Orville Peck, the “queer singing cowboy”? I’m not sure I know anything about him, but here goes. He is a character created by someone to act as vehicle for his songs. We don’t know what that person looks like, thanks to their collection of tasseled, leather (s)executioner masks. He also always wears a cowboy hat. He is one of the most exciting new artists to emerge in 2019 and yet, he seems to have an unusual pre-existing popularity. He has a stunning singing voice and, most importantly, he writes great songs.
It is beyond my cultural crystal ball-reading abilities to fully grasp what the “cowboy” moment means in the grand scheme of things. And I’m not sure I stan for Orville Peck the way many of his fresh and fervent devotees do. But to be honest, I’m not really interested in those things and what they mean when I listen to his music because — despite all of the imagination that went into creating Orville Peck, the micro-celebrity — the songs melt it all away. Peck has a voice that is so sad and classic and full of longing, it cuts through everything and anything. It could turn the toughest outback steak into soft butter.
The palpable authenticity in Peck’s voice is what might qualify Pony as a country and western album. But that line has been oversold (probably because of the guy’s cowboy hat). In reality, Pony owes more to indie rock originators R.E.M. at their most southern and experimental than it does to Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson. Which is why this whole thing works. Peck uses this decayed and faded memory of country and western to present his indie-rock. There are moments that do sound authentically country, like the gorgeous-yet-goofy “Roses Are Falling” and the hillbilly hook of “Take You Back (The Iron Hoof Cattle Call)”. The best cowboy song on the album is “Kansas (Remembers Me Now)”, complete with a classic sounding quartet of backing vocalists, it slowly disintegrates into a dust cloud of distortion, as if to symbolize the fading memory of this once popular and culturally important sound. It’s the Lana Del Rey-esque balladry of “Dead of Night” and “Big Sky” where Pony really strikes the perfect tone: current and modern but coloured with nostalgia for something the singer nor his fans ever actually experienced.
So often indie rock is bogged down with slacker cynicism and nonchalance, but Peck brilliantly subverts this trope by using the cowboy facade to display true and authentic emotion. It also allows him to get away with over-the-top musical moments like the key-changing power balladry on “Hope To Die” as well more straight-ahead rockers like “Winds Change”. So much of my thinking about Orville Peck has been about his authenticity. How seriously am I supposed to take a pseudonymous masked cowboy from Canada? Is this all just a really smart PR campaign to make him stand out from the every other white-guy singer songwriter? Who is he really? What I’ve discovered is that these questions are best left unaddressed and unanswered. Getting to the bottom of it may provide some comfort or satisfaction but it would ultimately be a distraction. All you need to do in order to know that Orville Peck is authentic is simply listen to him sing. It’s the kind of power that no persona, posturing, or mask can contain.