"You a real cowboy?" "Well, that depends on what you think a real cowboy is …" That bit of dialogue from Urban Cowboy, the movie that turned country music into an unfortunate sort of mass market phenomenon in the '80s, comes to mind while listening to Pony, the debut album from Canadian vocalist and songwriter Orville Peck. Peck sure knows how to dress like a cowboy, he has a voice that's big as all outdoors, and he can write a melody with the dramatic sweep of a classic John Ford western. But that fringed mask Peck wears, the guitar figures that evoke shoegaze and goth sounds as much as vintage country & western, and the casual references to getting high with hustlers, sexually ambiguous rodeo riders, and fellow cowpokes calling him pretty make it clear Peck is not about to become the new Marty Robbins. But as an artist who at once embraces and subverts the tropes of classic country music and the iconography of the North American cowboy, Peck delivers some of the most enjoyable cultural détournement since Robert Lopez transformed himself into El Vez, and he's an even better singer. Peck's instrument suggests some fortunate cross between Elvis Presley, Chris Isaak, Roy Orbison, and Morrissey, and if his delivery is a bit melodramatic in its swagger and brio, it suits the material, and his pipes are strong enough to make it work. Peck's melodies run the gamut from sweetly sad to cheerfully defiant, and the production and arrangements make the performances sound spacious, dynamic, and powerfully satisfying; while the subtext adds to the drama of this music, you can listen to this at face value as western music for 21st century cowboys and still enjoy it tremendously. With Pony, Orville Peck could probably get over on sheer audacity, but his talent is as impressive as his ideas are smart and unexpected, and this is one of the best and most fascinating debuts from an alt-country-adjacent artist in a very long time. If Orville Peck doesn't redefine "Urban Cowboy," then in all likelihood nobody can.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming