Mystery is often a key ingredient in making great music. Whether it be Joy Division's deliberate lack of promotion of ‘Unknown Pleasures’ – with its ambiguous cover that simultaneously tells you very little and everything you need to know about the music within – or Burial taking it a step further in the mid-2000s, to the point where people began to question if he was even real.
Artists who’ve opted for anonymity have by-and-large enjoyed this luxury due to the style of music they make: inherently underground, alternative, inaccessible (or all of the above). Country music is no such genre, it foregrounds its stars and requires personality to ground the stories it tells. Here, image is everything and has been for countless big names in the country music world for generations. Think of Dolly Parton, and you think of the big, blonde hair. Think of Johnny Cash, and you think of a chiselled man, dressed in black.
This history makes it all the more impressive that in 2019, a masked vigilante can come in and tear the rule book up with the style and candour of Orville Peck.
Even without the image-based intrigue, ‘Pony’ is still an album that excites as much as it entertains. Country is at its best when the music behind the singer isn't shouty or muscular but plays a supporting role. Artists like Parton, Cash, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson have made their name with voices more so than melodies, production or musicianship.
What Peck provides on ‘Pony’ is music framed in that mould, and in doing so offers a brilliant palate cleanser to the vast majority of overblown, raucous and vapid compositions that have taken over the genre over the course of the last three decades or so.
On the enchanting opening half of the record – from ‘Dead of Night’ all the way through to ‘Kansas (Remembers Me Now)’ – Peck's voice bellows and croons to his audience with a depth and warmth that’s impossible to ignore. As we descend through the latter half of the runtime, Peck's vocals continue to astound, flanked by increasingly subdued and subtle compositions.
What’s missing is any real deviation from the formula. If it's your cup of tea then you’ll get on with it handsomely. If the faux, hokey, bombastic, Christian-loving grandiosity of other modern country artists is more your bag, then ‘Pony’ might not have an awful lot to offer. But in years to come, it’ll be ‘Pony’ and Orville Peck's subsequent works that remain memorable, after all those other acts and albums die away into irrelevance.
Words: Michael Watkins
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