Masked country singer Orville Peck reclining on a saddle
Credit: Julia Johnson

When the masked country crooner who performs as Orville Peck dropped his 2019 debut record, Pony (Sub Pop), his decadent baritone and mysterious persona immediately earned him a cult following. Created in the safety of anonymity, his descriptions of heartbreak and loneliness washed over listeners, their intimacy heightened by sparse musical accompaniment. But as quickly as fans were drawn to him, some were just as eager to unmask him, and eventually he was identified as Daniel Pitout of Canadian garage and punk groups Nü Sensae and Eating Out. So it was unsurprising that Peck’s next release, the 2020 EP Show Pony, seemed to withhold itself emotionally even as it ramped up the technical proficiency; it also included a sparkling duet with country megastar Shania Twain. For all its shortcomings, it was exactly what its title implied: the rehearsed pageantry of a rising star hemmed in by his own visibility.

The name of Peck’s latest release, Bronco (Columbia), promises the mature sound of a seasoned musician bucking against the constraints of superstardom, but it fails to approach anything wild or raw. Released in three “chapters”—the first on March 5, the second on March 11, and the last on April 8—Bronco delivers lush productions that borrow from traditional bluegrass, California psych rock, and doo-wop. But as lovely as the album sounds, its tightly layered arrangements drown out what should’ve been its most revealing moments. On “Kalahari Down,” for example, Peck mentions growing up in South Africa just north of Sophiatown (an enclave of Black innovation ravaged by apartheid), but at the same time he leans heavily on the artifice of his cowboy persona and a saccharine violin chart. “Daytona Sand,” a song about a whirlwind road romance, is punctuated by galloping drums that match the frenzied excitement of such a love, but the pop flourishes that round it out distract from the emotional weight it needs—that emotion is more apparent in its frantically campy music video. One pleasant surprise is album closer “All I Can Say,” a moody duet with former Sub Pop labelmate Bria Salmena that’s obviously influenced by Mazzy Star: it relies on the strength and vulnerability of the singers’ voices, not on muddled musical signifiers. Is Bronco’s overworked songwriting an inevitable consequence of Peck playing in the big leagues, or proof that he’s at his best when he can keep fans at a distance? Only time will tell.

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Orville Peck’s Bronco is available through his website.