In an age where social media and government surveillance makes completely starting over almost impossible, Orville Peck—name unknown and face obscured–personifies the anonymity of the Old West. A persona he uses in his 2019 debut album “Pony” to reclaim the cowboy as a figure of loneliness on the fringes of society.
Peck also returns to a Johnny Cash style of storytelling with the hustlers transferring the Nevada desert in “Dead of Night,” or the reflections of real-life infamous murderers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock in “Kansas (Remembers Me Now).” His crooning baritone adds a haunting, heart-wrenching quality to the lyrics.
Peck, who identifies as gay, also infuses “Pony” with the latent homoeroticism of the Old West— “the undying commitment between a “lone” ranger and his trusty partner, streaking through ghost towns side-by-side,” according to Pitchfork.
He also gives a nod to drag in “Queen of the Rodeo,” which follows a fading drag queen as she gets ready to perform. Peck also tells listeners “don’t forget to tip your Queen” in his featured song on “Diplo Presents Thomas Wesley, Chapter 1: Snake Oil.”
Peck’s interest in drag culture plays into his own campy cowboy persona – multi-colored fringe masks paired with embroidered, fringed shirts or powder blue suits. I still think about Orville Peck and Lil Nas X standing next to each other at the 2020 Grammys, clad in silver fringe and neon pink respectively.
“There’s a lot of theatricality to what I do and that’s purposeful,” said Peck in a Vice interview. “It’s ironic because, at the same time, I truly believe [that “Pony”] is the most sincere thing I’ve done artistically, the most exposed that I’ve ever been as a singer, as a writer, as an artist.”
It’s difficult to pick out my favorites as each song on “Pony” contains its own distinct narrative. The album’s most popular song on Spotify and lead single “Dead of Night” follows the whirlwind romance between two hustlers. The song touches on the feeling of being static while others move on without you as the singer reminisces about the relationship’s dissolution. Peck never uses the word “cry,” (/It’s enough to make a young man—/) but halts right before so the implication hangs.
“Kansas (Remembers Me Now)” is sung from the perspective of Perry Smith, who murdered the Clutter family along with Dick Hickock in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959. The murders would become the subject of Truman Capote’s true crime novel “In Cold Blood.” Both Smith and Hickock were hanged in 1965. It’s a strange premise, but Peck manages to imbue the listener with a feeling of nostalgic loneliness and tired acceptance. The song also has a layer of audio distortion to make it sound like a radio broadcast. As the song nears the end, the distortion worsens until it snaps off as from a “bad connection.” It perfectly captures the era the crime took place in, and the abrupt end of Smith’s life.
However, my favorite track is currently the album’s final song “Nothing Fades of the Light.” It’s the culmination of the lonely cowboy character that Peck builds throughout the album. The track balances the singer’s yearning for companionship with his acceptance of his isolation: “Some men only ride alone/I only ride in the night/Some drown in the warmth of home/But nothing fades like the light.” It’s a relatable feeling that rings differently during the age of quarantine.
Furthermore, by having “light fade” in the last song listeners are naturally back to the “dark” at the beginning of the album: “Dead of Night.”
“Pony” is a haunting, beautiful album that reclaims a culture and genre that has long been stereotyped as conservative. I can’t wait to hear more and, with songs like “No Glory in the West” on Peck’s 2020 “Show Pony EP”, I have no doubt it will meet my expectations.
Photo courtesy of Clash Music.