The late James Dean once said, “Only the gentle are ever really strong.” Dean, an image hijacked and made synonymous with swagger and boldness, was the embodiment of a cowboy. However, his outlaw image did not lie within this purported sense masculinity. Rather, it manifested in a keen sense of tenderness and wonder toward life around him and his ability to go against the grain with grace, mystery and a bit of sadness along the way. To Sub Pop’s newest signee Orville Peck, Dean was and still is the perfect exemplar of cowboy-ism.

While Dean nailed down the true spirit of the cowboy, country music artists like Townes Van Zandt, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn and, of course, Willie Nelson pushed the archetype through a realm of dark, mournful outlaw-tinged sentiments and sounds—resulting in the beloved ‘outlaw’ era of country music. Unfortunately, as years have passed, the very theatrical and robust storytelling element about country has been left largely forgotten. Nevertheless, the alluring Peck resuscitates the genre’s grieving spirit from the dead with his debut album Pony.

A lonesome soul embellished with a mysterious fetish mask - leather fringe and all - and a Stetson to complete the cowboy aesthetic, Orville Peck’s queer but ambiguous identity is deeply tied to his wistful brand of country music. Though he may seem like an unknowable phenomenon on the surface, Peck’s appearance simply acts as a welcome mat, allowing individuals to merely ponder who he is. But it is through his resounding voice and searing words listeners are able to wrap their mind and heart around the mask. Though the stories told on Pony seem vague, Peck’s words throughout intensely reflect realities, emotions and experiences tied to what many others have faced—like heartbreak and being an outsider. From the first track to the last, Peck’s debut brims, not with nostalgia, but with longing, unbridled sadness and a peculiar satisfaction in the isolated, outlaw spirit of long ago.

Beginning with the tambourine-tinged 'Dead of Night', Peck fills the air with fleeting loneliness. Though he tells a story of two hustlers traveling through the Nevada desert, establishing a sense of companionship, “The sun goes down - another dreamless night/ You’re right by my side”; this relationship dissipates into the desert night, which Peck paints so vividly in listeners' minds: “Six summers down - another dreamless night/ You’re not by my side.” As a hazy veil of guitar washes through, it’s hard to not believe the flowing sadness bleeding from Peck’s words.

Two tracks later, the covert buckaroo veers from the melancholic stage, grabs his mic by the wire and lassoes it in the air to usher in the foot-stomping barn-raiser, ‘Turn To Hate’. Expressing his struggle to find normalcy and something to believe in amidst turbulent times, (“Done enough to take the bait/ Don't let my sorrow turn to hate”) listeners toil alongside Peck as he navigates the resentment and negativity within himself as a result of the instability that comes with someone living on the fringes of society.

The foot-stomping energy of ‘Turn to Hate’ then diffuses into the song ‘Buffalo Run’, where Peck’s fiery cowboy ethos is on full display. Using the imagery and mimicking the sound of stampeding buffalo running free out in the open plains, this track initiates as a steady jog, but then jumps the gun, breaking loose into a full-on sprint toward a destination unknown yet mystical. While slow strums of guitar ring in gradual tension, a vigorous thrust of percussion morphs this initially pacifying number into a crescendoing display of good ‘ole Americana.

Echoing the feverish energy of the aforementioned cuts with a galloping guitar melody and samples of snapping bullwhips, ‘Take You Back’ is an adventurous yet savage clap back at a past lover(s): “Can you hear the horses baby? Stronger than an iron hoof/ But this town has always bored me and baby that’s including you.” Mixing in the mysterious draw of his romantic past with the musical eccentricities of old spaghetti westerns, ‘Take You Back’ is easily one of the most joyous, yet difficult to grasp experiences from Pony. Though there is confidence, justifiable humor and spitefulness to Peck’s words and experiences; “And if there’s one thing I know for sure, it’ll be a long, cold day in hell when I take you back,” a hint of anguished regret threatens to surface.

This regret seeps into ‘Hope to Die’, a melancholic-drenched ballad overflowing with beauty and grandeur. One of the more impactful moments of the crooning cowboy’s debut, ‘Hope to Die’ is Peck’s most direct and transparent reckoning of the past. “Gone was the way we were/Just like the days we’d burn everything ‘round us, baby/ Take me back to the time I was yours - you were mine.” Dissimilar to the rest of the record, where every song feels as if it were sheathed in the warmth of desert sunsets, ‘Hope To Die’ drapes a shadowy cloak over the listener as they tear up to Peck’s impeccable baritone voice. With heavy reverb and shoegaze-y elements, replacing twangy guitars, listeners are left in a saddened fog, but eventually enveloped by a theatrical crescendo where Peck delivers with conviction “cross my heart now I hope to die.”

Now, given the many, on-the-nose musical references to the age of Cash, Nelson, Haggard, Parton etc., combined with his mysterious get-up, some listeners may deem Peck’s music and image as some disingenuous ruse for publicity. However, this most certainly is not the case. In fact, bubbling beneath the seemingly “overt” cowboy imagery and musical references, Peck claws and cries out to move forward in any and all avenues of life. Whether it be pushing past the anxieties of sitting still with no particular sense of home, both in a figurative and literal sense, or even the bittersweet memories of failed relationships, Peck’s desires are timeless and unveiled for all to cherish and cry to. Though his sound remembers a particular era of country music, Orville Peck’s Pony is sentimentally everlasting, and a tender reminder that a mask can reveal more than it hides.