Alexander O’Connor, more commonly known by his stage name Rex Orange County, is difficult to categorize musically. His unique sound ranges from bedroom soul to alternative hip-hop to indie pop. As the lines of genre in the music industry become increasingly blurred, Rex Orange County’s newest album, “Pony,” is no exception.
Rex Orange County has been a staple artist in indie music since his breakout appearance on Tyler, the Creator’s album, “Flower Boy” (2017). The artist caught his first big break when he was featured on Tyler, the Creator’s seminal album, being featured as an artist and co-writer on tracks “Boredom” and “Foreword.” Only a couple months prior to the release of “Flower Boy,” Rex released his sophomore album, “Apricot Princess.”
“Pony” is Rex Orange County’s third full-length studio album with a total of 10 tracks, including three singles. It follows in the footsteps of his previous two albums, “bcos u will never b free” (2016) and “Apricot Princess” (2017), the latter peaking at the No. 2 spot on Billboard’s Top Heatseekers and the No. 8 spot on Billboard’s Independent Albums chart. For “Pony,” Rex Orange County once again teams up with producer and mix engineer Ben Baptie. O’Connor and Baptie’s partnership fuses the intimacy of O’Connor’s lyrics and the subtle prowess of Baptie’s mixing. Such a partnership preserves the do-it-yourself feel of Rex’s style; after all, much of O’Connor’s work is self-produced with his first two albums being self-released. In “Pony,” Rex Orange County manages to capture the nuanced intimacy of past works while still building off of the successes of “Apricot Princess.”
“Pony” is a clear reflection of how Rex Orange County has pushed both himself and his music over the past year since “Apricot Princess.” After hitting top 10 spots on indie charts, Rex caught the attention of Sony Music and signed a record deal with them. This project is a healthy mixture of peppy and angsty tunes, which Rex is known for, but also more sobering tracks that speak to feelings of helplessness, growing out of life phases and change. “Pony” tracks such as “10/10” highlight the struggle of O’Connor’s newfound fame and the pressure of touring: “I had a think about my oldest friends / Now, I no longer hang with them / and I can’t wait to be home again / I had a year that nearly sent me off the edge.”
In an interview with ALT 98.7, O’Connor explains his thought process when approaching this new album:
“Of course, I wanted to make an album better than I had before and make something that I was really proud of. I wanted to level myself up; that was more for myself than anyone else, really. Just to know that I could do it. Make songs that felt were further than me, go further than before, spend more time. I think be more open to things; before I had quite specific blueprints and this time I was more ground-up, starting things from scratch.”
Despite the notably synthed-out melodies, Rex Orange County has maintained his soulful touch. With lyrics that sustain the intimate musings his listeners adore, O’Connor is able to keep that raw spirit while still moving into a more heavily produced and planned out sound. However, this shift in approach was not an accident. In the same interview, when asked if there was a specific area in which he tried to press his music forward, Rex responded, “In my head, before, it was more in the production, and actually making it sound cleaner and less amateur and do-it-yourself — even though I was doing a lot of it myself.”
Instead of a completely cohesive look at O’Connor’s thoughts on the past year, “Pony” offers miniature, individualized glimpses into the artist’s reflections. It feels appropriate that an album aimed at representing a year of the artist’s life is not stagnant or monotonous. At the release of “Apricot Princess,” O’Connor was only 18 years old; he is now 21. Many of the songs on this album, along with the overarching theme of sudden fame, also center around complex feelings of growing up. Lyrics from the second single of this album, “Pluto Projector,” read: “I’m still a boy inside my thoughts / Am I meant to understand my faults?”
Lines like these serve to affirm the universality of Rex Orange County’s emotions, especially those that feel overwhelmed or anxious.
In spite of the album’s documentation of turmoil, Rex also gives us hints of victory and resilience throughout the album. Changes in tempo — both emotional and musical — are quintessential representations of the duality of Rex’s pep and angst. Tracks like “Never Had the Balls” and “It Gets Better” are a couple of the best examples of this triumphant spirit. In “Never Had the Balls” Rex croons: “I did everything that I could, but still, I was helpless (So helpless) / I shouldn’t waste my precious time / on anybody living off of mine / and now I know that things are getting better / I could live like this forever.”
Much like its predecessors, “Pony” is another gleaming gem in Rex Orange County’s discography. “Pony” demonstrates a playful youthfulness in addition to a mature sound that is not afraid to confront personal questions through song. The incorporation of slight stylistic changes such as reverbed vocals and auto-tuned harmonies complements more familiar, jazzy Rex elements like horn instrumentals, which feature prominently on his 2017 song “Rain Man.”
With both new and old tools in hand, Rex Orange County delivers the same kind of honesty and spirit that have become integral to his brand and artistic persona. Although fans may be startled by his more poppy than soulful sound at times, ultimately, they will find that O’Connor’s minor departures from the bedroom pop aesthetic has broadened his musicality. Rex has proved once again his capability as an artist to grow and diversify his sound. We should all be very excited for “Pony” and the great potential that Rex Orange County demonstrates on this album.