Thrust into the world’s affections at 16, Alex O’Connor — better known as soul-pop troubadour Rex Orange County — was unequipped for the response his catalogue has garnered. Specializing in painfully sincere love songs laced with profanity and occasional bouts of oversharing, the teenage singer/songwriter seemed almost anachronistic in a timeframe where irony and biting wit are placed on way too high of a pedestal. Despite that, he entered the hearts of millions and became a quintessential artist of the social media age.
Once prone to shunning the hyper-polished in favor of veering off the beaten track, the bedroom aesthetic that defined 2015’s Bcos U Will Never B Free has been gradually pulled away from the audience as the Surrey-born artist’s presence grew. Consequently, when his third record Pony’s debut single “10/10” was unveiled, alarm bells could be faintly heard. Incessantly upbeat and featuring lines such as “I turned superhero, I’m coming in Bruce Wayne,” a distinction between “old” and “new” Rex began to emerge for some fans. Left to wallow in speculation, fears that his underlying affinity for the saccharine had finally gotten the better of him intensified, and it seemed as though the former bedroom artist could’ve succumbed to homogenizing his sound in the pursuit of richer rewards.
Now that the record has arrived, it’s heartening to know that those fears were largely unfounded.
Since the outset of his career, Rex’s songwriting prowess has always shone through on the precipice of a personal crisis. A master of capturing the moments where things begin to escape your grasp, “Always” sees him lay the fragility of his mental state out over a gorgeous, horn-accented arrangement that’s inherently bittersweet. In a move that sets the tone for the record, the track displays his life through a wide-angle lens, charting the moments where he’s in the throes of despondency and brief flashes where the world returns to technicolor.
On the synth-driven pop of “Never Had the Balls,” he flits between these perspectives in the space of two verses, taking him from the doldrums to near-maniacal joy as he proclaims “I’m your man if you’re looking for good times, feel amazing and I’m on my way home.”
Indebted to the plaintive piano ballads of Randy Newman, “Every Way” may set off with the hallmarks of a traditional love song, but morphs into an ode to the unsung heroes that remain in your corner during the rigors of a mental health battle.
When it comes to the cause of the melancholy that hovers above this ambitious sound, it’s clear that the more emotionally taxing aspects of a musician’s life have taken their toll. Awash in stunning harmonies, “Face to Face” examines the perils of long-distance relationships and the irrationality that ensues before Rex takes aim at the opportunists that have designs on entering his inner circle on “Stressed Out.” Underlaid with pitch-manipulated vocals and delicate guitar, the track, alongside the matter-of-fact rap flow of “Laser Light,” sees Rex wear the influence of Blonde-era Frank Ocean on his sleeve.
Filled with luscious instrumentation and tonal shifts, the album’s experimentation reaches its zenith on “It Gets Better.” Beginning as a propulsive R&B jam that mirrors original trilogy-Kanye in its urgency and arresting orchestral flourishes, Rex gradually slows the pace down to deliver an emotionally wrought tribute to his long-term girlfriend, Thea.
Although his musical acumen allows him to transfer his trademarks to other genres, that doesn’t mean his strengths reside any place other than where they always were. Between the aching intonations in his voice, its wistful chords and the backdrop of shimmering strings, “Pluto Projector” serves as the heartrending centrepiece of the album that displays the full scope of his talent. Conflicted for much of its runtime and – in truth – his career, this track sees him cast aside all the tertiary concerns in order to sing of undying devotion to his partner.
Naturally, the album concludes with O’Connor in a reflective headspace. Gazing at old pictures and noting that his “face has changed now,” “It’s Not the Same Anymore” is an exercise in taking stock of his life and all of its tribulations. A testament to how depression can dampen even the most beautiful experience, Rex seems condemned to a world where uncertainty and self-doubt are the order of the day. But then, a semblance of a light at the end of the tunnel appears. In an expertly crafted bait-and-switch, the track takes us from the pits of despair to a world where he’s finally found the strength to tackle his issues head-on. A powerful and exhilarating conclusion, Rex reminds himself and his fans that a fragment of hope can be the first step towards turning the tide.
Just like its creator, Pony isn’t without its missteps or lingering hang-ups. But on the whole, his third album proves that Rex is veering away from a work-in-progress and closer to the finished article. And with a duration of just 34 minutes, his decision to err towards concision does wonders to dispel any possibility of listener fatigue. At the age of 21, Rex exhibits the foresight to sidestep the ensnaring false sense of security that social media-based hero worship can provide. Instead, he’s redrew his own boundaries and added new dimensions to his repertoire without sacrificing the sense of intimacy that made his output so compelling in the first place.
Listen to Rex Orange County’s ‘Pony’ here.