The musician known as Orville Peck requires a lot of adjectives to describe.
Openly gay yet tantalizingly anonymous, he’s a Canadian singer-songwriter who hides his true identity behind both an evocative pseudonym and a fringed mask – an artistic choice made well before the advent of Covid-19. Yet despite all the symbolic barriers he throws between himself and his audience, he sings songs that are often almost painfully honest, pulling you in with his growling, resonant baritone before soaring to the velvety heights of an upper range that can make you fall in love – an effect only heightened by the built-in mystique of his stylish disguise.
His 2019 debut album, “Pony,” made him one of the buzziest new names in music. A collection of standout tracks, delivered in a resonant baritone that pulled you in before soaring into the velvet heights of an upper range capable of making you fall in love, it established his mythic persona – the mysterious country crooner with a bad-boy past and a broken heart – while establishing him as a unique musical talent capable of transcending not only his genre, but his queer identity as well.
Now, on his follow-up EP, “Show Pony,” Peck delivers a sextet of new tracks which double down on his considerable strengths. Featuring a more consistent “country” feel than its predecessor, which leaned hard into the twangy signature sound of its instantly iconic opening track (“Dead of Night”) but still took time for musical diversions like the Patti Smith-inspired “Buffalo Run” to allow for a show of versatility, it seems on the surface like a more traditional offering; but after listening to it even the first time through, this new mini-collection of songs quickly reveals that Peck, like some kind of cowboy provocateur, is bent on pushing boundaries even further this time around.
The first two songs, “Summertime” and “No Glory in the West” are thematically-similar country ballads that continue seamlessly in the singer’s familiar vein. In the first, Peck struggles for hope while lamenting the loss of long-gone past, while in the second he adopts a less upbeat pose as he catalogs the cold indignities of a dog-eat-dog world. Both songs feel uncannily apt to our own here-and-now, their contrasting emotional centers resonating deeply in a world of lockdowns, cancellations, social distancing, and constitutional crises; juxtaposed as they are here, they present a distinct look at the two sides of Orville Peck – the world-weary romantic and the jaded cynic – already displayed on his first album, but here revealed in stark relief, and engaged in a tug of war that reinforces and refines the singer’s reputation for capturing the nuance of loneliness.
With the remaining four tracks, Peck pulls in ever-more unexpected directions.
In “Kids,” another mournful lament, he finds consolation in the kind of long-term relationships that truly sustain us – those with the special people from our past with whom our connection can lift us up in trying times. It’s a refreshing message in a sea of popular music perennially focused on romantic love.
“Drive Me, Crazy,” Peck’s spin on the “trucker ballad,” reflects on the metaphoric lessons learned from a life on the road, subtly poking fun at the cliches and maudlin sentimentality of the sub-genre that inspired it while never losing a drop of his affecting sincerity. It saves its most powerful touch for the final playout, with a spoken outro in which a lonely driver reaches out for connection via CB radio to a fellow trucker whose eye caught his in the rearview mirror; it’s a relatable impulse, rendered remarkable – even shocking – by gender, and it turns the song into a profound acknowledgement of the added feelings of isolation that “otherness” can bring.
Even the EP’s most high-profile song, Peck’s duet with Shania Twain, challenges our expectations. Titled “Legends Never Die,” it’s a quintessential power anthem cut from the same cloth as so many classic collaborations between country artists in the past,. True to Peck’s style, the traditional gives way to his reinvention, transforming what usually comes with a presumption of romantic entanglement into a mutual celebration between two close friends who both know what it’s like to rise from the ashes – with any question of their relationship being soundly resolved by the accompanying video, which showcases a sequin-bedazzled Peck and a leopard-skinned Twain strutting and prancing together at a drive-in theatre full of queer patrons. The song is clearly the album’s bid for a hit – something Peck’s superstar collaborator can help deliver – and its infectious musicality, coupled with its affirming message of self-empowerment, would make it a deserving one.
It’s the final cut on “Show Pony,” however, that goes the deepest. Peck finishes out his mini-album with a disquieting and unforgettable cover of “Fancy,” the 1970 Bobbie Gentry song about a young girl groomed by her mother to become a sex worker as the only possible escape from a life of hopeless poverty. Composed as a feminist anthem at a time when feminism was a controversial stance (how little things change), the controversy it stirred only cemented its classic status, and a 1990 cover by Reba McIntire became iconic in its own right. Now, with Peck’s growling, masculine bass taking on the first-person narrative, it becomes an intersectional anthem for anyone whose “otherness” has caused them to suffer in the shadows of economic and cultural repression. When Peck delivers the lyric, “Starin’ back from the lookin’ glass / There stood a woman where a half-grown boy had stood,” it’s surely the most electrifying moment on “Show Pony,” reinventing the song not by altering its original message, but by expanding and amplifying it, and then leaving us to ponder it in silence as the album fades to silence.
Initially slated to drop earlier this summer, “Show Pony” was held back in deference to the protests over the murder of George Floyd, though the singles “Summertime” and “No Glory in the West” were both released in May. When the EP finally became available on Friday, August 14, it had become a hotly-anticipated event, and judging from the reaction of fans and critics alike, it seems the verdict is that it was well-worth the wait.
That’s a good thing for Orville Peck, not least because the artistic conceit of his mysterious persona could easily come to be seen as a gimmick if it failed to capture audiences a second time – not that there was much chance of that. Thanks to his talents as a singer and songwriter, Peck has already proven he has a lot more behind the mask than just a catchy concept, or even just a pretty face.
More than that, with “Show Pony,” he also proves that he is willing and able to use his spotlight to lift up a whole legion of intersecting identities, simply because of the one thing he has not kept secret – namely, his queerness – and that makes all the difference.
You can watch the video for “Legends Never Die” (featuring Shania Twain) below.