How do you honor country music’s traditions, sweet and sour, while remaining true to your nature? Keep wearing those gilded masks, proudly shout out your queerness to the rafters, throw in some gothy, showy vocals, and, pow, you’re Orville Peck—the “outlaw cowboy” who’s been working that post-punk, alterna-C&W vibe since 2017.
Sliding on over to the Columbia label (from Sub Pop, where he was for his debut album, 2019’s Pony), Peck—like k.d. lang, who incrementally crafted grander and more cosmopolitan albums from her often-caustic but no-less-authentic Canadian country roots—brings the opulence of a big label to Bronco with an explosive, evocative production tone crossing Spaghetti Western plains and a mountain range’s open skies (yes, it is that dramatic) with the help of session banjo pluckers such as Punch Brothers’ Noam Pikelny.
While that How-Green-Was-My-Valley-meets-Nashville-Skyline vibe opens up his often-spectral arrangements, Peck’s theatrical songwriting and vocal styling hasn’t changed all that much from Pony. Still a dependably mopey Orbison-esque singer with a bittersweet edge to his phrasing (that’s a compliment), and queer romantics in his character-driven lyrics (“Blush” in particular handles gay love subtly and tenderly), mini-epics such as “City of Gold” and “Daytona Sand” are deep, hot exhalations that wouldn’t seem out of place on the preceding record.
Then there’s the elegant, Buck Owens–like Bakersfield countrypolitan “C’mon Baby, Cry,” the shimmeringly acoustic “Hexie Mountains,” and—my favorite—the hiccupping rockabilly trucker tale "Any Turn,” each of which show off Peck’s growth, ascendance, and seismic shifts. All in all, Bronco bucks beautifully.