Review | Rex Orange County - Pony
On his major-label debut Pony, Rex Orange County struggles with the life that success has brought him while navigating the transition into adulthood.
At the mere age of 18, Alex O’Connor, or Rex Orange County, found himself collaborating on multiple songs with Tyler, the Creator for the rapper’s critically acclaimed 2017 album Flower Boy. Still a relative unknown in the music world, he released his album Apricot Princess around the same time, in anticipation of the new attention he would receive as a result of his features. The lush and exciting production, along with his youthful relatability, seemed to strike a chord with many. In the two years since then, he has been the runner-up of BBC Music Sound of 2018, labelled an emerging artist by Spotify which gave him the chance to work with Randy Newman, and has toured all around the world. But while his career has gone from strength to strength, the period has been difficult on his mental health.
Now 21, he has released Pony, an album full of self-doubt that is a departure from the expansive DIY and occasionally erratic sound of his previous works. But that is a not a detriment to the album, rather a sign of maturity, where each musical choice seems more purposeful. ‘Laser Lights’ showcases this in abundance, with Rex singing over a loose, jazzy instrumental featuring multiple instruments that seamlessly weave in and out of the track. The song displays his artistic growth and this is mirrored in the album by the lyrical focus on personal development. The opener ‘10/10’ is a fast-paced, synthesizer-heavy song that initially can come across as grating but finds itself being undeniably infectious. Not only that, but Pony’s lead single sets the thematic tone for the record, with Rex talking about how isolated he’s been feeling in “a year that nearly sent [him] off the edge”.
‘Face to Face’ sees Rex lamenting about the difficulties of being on the other side of the world from his girlfriend. The bright instrumental contrasts with a very honest lyrical performance that reflects on how the physical separation leads to him having second thoughts about his relationship and becoming overly focused on the negative aspects of his life. The track is presumably based around his experience touring across the globe, so lines like “my world got so much smaller this year” paint a bleak picture of what should be highpoints in his career thus far. It’s one of the standouts on the album, along with ‘Pluto Projector’, which is a song that contains his most strained vocals, while arguably being his best on Pony. It’s another example of the production being perfectly complementary, with the slow tempo and drowned-out drums shifting the focus to the singing and giving the song room to breathe.
Having said that, some of the weakest points on the album are where the production is very bare-bones. ‘Stressed Out’ sounds inspired by Frank Ocean with its sparsity and pitched down background vocals, but ultimately meanders for its sub-two-minute runtime. ‘Every Way’ at least seems to be stripped back to give more prominence to a lyrical ode to his girlfriend, and while it is slightly unfulfilling, it has some interesting vocal melodies to accompany the lone piano lead. They’re not bad by any means, just not incredibly captivating.
The final track ‘It’s Not the Same Anymore’ acts as a summation of Pony’s narrative as well as the inner turmoil that Rex has been going through since finding success, the six-minute length justified by it being the most complete musical journey on the album. It starts off as a wistful, acoustic look back on the past, with Rex remarking how simple and easy life used to be, but by the end, it takes an optimistic turn. The closing lines of Pony “It’s not the same anymore, it’s better” is met with an orchestral outro that evokes the feeling of clouds parting to reveal the sun. It acts as a moment of realisation from Rex of how fortunate he is to have the life that he does. The ending solidifies Pony as an album brimming with sonic and personal maturation and suggests that Rex Orange County is only going to get better from here.
Best song: Pluto Projector
Worst song: Stressed Out