Orville Peck – the Promises of a Bez Valley Desperado
Peck’s latest album ‘Bronco’ is the single most satisfying release of 2022 so far. One year from now Orville Peck will be a household name. And still an unknown face.
First let’s get the mask out of the way. Orville Peck always has it on – on stage, in public – and there’s scarcely an interview with him that doesn’t bring up why he so consistently wears the fringed accessory (see, we are even doing it here).
The mask, Peck told NPR, is more than fashion: “That’s kind of the irony of my mask… the idea that some people would have me being anonymous or hiding something or not being sincere. But it’s funny ‘cause the mask actually has allowed me to be the most vulnerable and the most sincere that I’ve ever been in my life.”
Which brings us to his backstory. Glorious as it is for an artist who filters outlaw country music through the slow-burn, moodiness of early Nineties British guitar music, dream pop, and even psychedelic rock, Orville Peck is a chosen name. But it is one that Peck inhabits so fully – from the imagery accompanying his latest album to the back-arched, fringe-flying, guitar-playing performance photos that stud his Instagram feed – that who he was before his 2019 debut, Pony, doesn’t really matter.
Except, of course, for those of us who have longed for a globally resonant South African artist, it matters in the music.
Listen to his 2022 album, Bronco, and the clues that Peck is South African are scattered around, like jacaranda blossoms cascading onto inky hot tar.
Here are the opening lines to Kalahari Down, a standout track on a standout record that is, hands down, our song of 2022 so far.
“I was born in the Badlands, honey
Strange place for a boy to drown
Spent my days on a mountain, baby
Twelve miles north of Sophiatown”
And, later, these lines – which also clearly signal why he was chosen to recreate Dolly Parton’s iconic 1997 Out magazine cover for its 30th anniversary this past July.
“Polishing your whip, never drove it far
Circling the veld, spitting in the jar
On your daddy’s farm, you’d say you’re afraid, tell me not to frown
Play a song, you’d dance around
Yippee-yo-ki-yay, we’d hit the ground
Still tumbling down”
The song nears perfection in its awakening of (doomed) first love. Between a boy and a boy. He’s swooning on the veld and he’s on the frontier of the taboo-breaking champions of Country music (Lil Nas X is the hitherto more gloried iconoclast), his smouldering, familiar melodies lush and lean at the same time, his channelling of Elvis knowing – but never ironic – skew and reverential, feverish but never fey. Peck’s comfort with the spangled camp of Country music provides the perfect vehicle to examine fully fledged masculinity in all its same-sex splendour, his gayness never a provocation, never a cause, never engineered to taunt the conservative hetero swagger of the music that till now dared not go into that queer night.
Supported by a warm guitar, subtle banjo and a trumpet that’s among the most emotional, and perfectly placed since Sufjan Stevens’s Chicago, Iris Rose sees Peck pay tribute to someone – a grandparent? – with great longing and heart.
It opens with a line that sets the song in a small valley that, when we lived in Orange Grove, we would reach by driving up and over Sylvia Pass – always pausing to look back over the sweeping views to the north of Joburg – and gliding down the hill past Cyrildene before turning back towards the city.
“Bez Valley never saw the day
I would’ve wanted you to watch me play
But I hear the songs there are better
Thinking back to those Southern nights
Give it all to hear you call me, “Guy”
But I know that’s why we don’t say never
And I wish you’d stayed
Maybe I’d be the same
That’s how she goes, yeah, Iris Rose
And Peck’s love for South Africa is even more striking on the confessional acoustic guitar City of Gold.
It’s back to Johannesburg that Peck retreats – physically or imaginatively – when the kind of emotional entanglements that leave scars get overwhelming. There’s widescreen romance in Peck’s songs – Jimmy Dean East of Eden-style romance – swirling and enthralling and not simply gestural and never tongue-in-cheek.
“And if you’re thinking about dropping a line
Tell ‘em I’m back on Southern time
To the city of gold and, baby, I’m told that Jozi is doing just fine”
And, later, “City of gold, I’ve been told, you’re mine”
On its release in April, Peck said: “Making this album saved my life and I can’t wait for everybody to hear it in full. It’s the most proud I’ve ever felt about something and it took me my whole life to get to there. I hope some of these lyrics and songs might help people feel the same. To get to a place of self-compassion and vulnerability. Acceptance of oneself – good, bad and ugly. Wild and free. A bronco.”
Alongside this – and the romance, loneliness, loss, trauma (The Curse of the Blackened Eye is about an abusive relationship that epically showcases Peck’s country croon, his baritone bold and sweet and intimate, his upscaling to falsetto gorgeous and unaffected) that surface on the album – Bronco is the sound of Peck reflecting deeply on his roots; on the “whole life” that it took for him to get where he is. He plays an epic hand, at times (David) Lynch-like in its melodramatic sweep. He has his heart on his sleeve, his music history homework in his back pocket and his lust for life and legend unconcealed by that ever-present mask.
One of the most striking images of his Out photoshoot is Peck posing in front of a gingham cloth, hands on the obligatory big buckled cowboy belt, wearing jeans and a customised denim waistcoat that is embroidered with Proteas and Gemsbok. He also chooses “the incredible” Miriam Makeba for his Amoeba Music What’s In My Bag episode, calling her “one of my icons”. As he recently told Thrillist: “I grew up listening to tons of marabi and mbaqanga. South African folk music, essentially, so artists like Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. A lot of those artists in the Sixties, especially in South Africa, created this very specific sound, which Paul Simon, of course, made very famous on Graceland. I have a song on the album called Lafayette, which isn’t about South Africa – it’s actually about New Orleans. But musically that song is inspired by marabi music, which is essentially South African folk music that was played in the townships. My grandmother grew up where a lot of that music was played. So, for me, [the music] has a special place in my heart.”
Bronco closes with the melancholic All I Can Say, a duet with Bria Salmena of the Sub Pop-signed Bria (whose Cuntry Covers Vol. 1 is a six-song EP of classic Country covers and worth your time too).
Through this – and the members of his live band – Peck assuredly transmits a signal about his musical influences which, like a “bronco runnin wild”, can’t be contained to simply classic and outlaw Country (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, Bobbie Gentry, The Chicks) but also includes Patti Smith, Whitney Houston and X. Probably Iggy Pop, Nick Cave, Van – and Jim – Morrison, Phil Spector, Lee Hazlewood and Lana Del Rey too. Among the songs he has covered is Bronski Beat’s Small Town Boy.
Peck trained in ballet and classical theatre and his early performances were in London’s West End, and it is as a performer that he’s thrilling. He’s the first truly intriguing male performer in pop music in a long time. Which is to say he’s in the tradition of – and late addition to – performers who’ve put their masculinity to the theatrical knife, the tradition of Little Richard, Presley, Jagger, Prince, Bowie, Morrissey, Eminem, to name a handful of the biggest artists who were figuring out not merely what it’s like to be in a male body, but what it’s like to be in their particular male body.
Bronco is the single most satisfying album of 2022 so far. One year from now Orville Peck will be a household name. And still an unknown face. DM/ML
In case you missed it, also read South African rock band BLK JKS: A transfiguration of the message of revolution and change in music