Rex Orange County - “Pony” Album Review
Alexander O’Conner, better known by his stage name Rex Orange County, released his third studio album, “Pony,” which does not stray far from his previous work, but delves into more complex themes, both lyrically and musically, than his past work.
O’Conner first put his music on display in 2016, releasing “Bcos U Will Never B Free,” a charmingly low budget and stripped down indie rock album, featuring mostly just O’Conner and his guitar. His strained and whiney voice was a good match for his timid but romantic lyrics. The album caught the attention of Tyler, The Creator, who recruited O’Conner for the “Foreword” to “Flower Boy,” bringing Rex Orange County to the mainstream.
Tyler, The Creator, alongside his Odd Future partner Frank Ocean appeared to influence O’Conner. In his second album, 2017’s “Apricot Princess,” O’Conner featured more poignant lyrics reminiscent of Ocean’s, and synth pieces that would have fit right in a track from “Flower Boy.” “Apricot Princess,” alongside singles “Best Friend,” “Sunflower,” and “Loving Is Easy,” which did not make it to the album, made 2017 O’Conner’s breakout year. He added hints of soul and jazz to a hip hop influenced indie-pop sound, Rex Orange County had a style all of its own.
“Pony” is nothing but a continuation of this momentum. The 21-year-old English singer, songwriter, and producer does not fit into a single box. His singing style is hardly melodic, and his lines draw out, because of this, his singing can resemble rapping or spoken word at times.
Sometimes it seems like O'Conner is trying to say too much in one line, but he usually contains it well. With this, comes a style that is confessional, confrontational, and uses little organization. In “Pony,” O'Conner has little restraint or refinement over his emotions. This, combined with his minimalist style, presents an album that walks a thin line between success and complete collapse.
There are a few moments in the album where O'Conner’s sound falls a bit flat. This happens most notably in “Laser Lights.” The simple piano melody does not mesh well with O'Conner, whose singing is a bit too flat, and is an instance where it seems like he is trying to fit too many words in too little a space.
The album’s closer, “It’s Not The Same Anymore,” has a six-and-a-half minute run time, which leads to moments where the listener can often become disengaged with O'Conner’s lamenting about his life changing over a repeating ukulele hook. O'Conner’s candidness in his lyrics, though, eventually save the track.
The candidness throughout the album, in fact, is what drives “Pony” forward. Today’s “Gen Z” influenced culture has come to value being forward with and being in touch with emotion. It has come to embrace mental health and coming forward with problems. With this, Rex Orange County has come to epitomize and champion this sentiment, and “Pony” is a perfect album for its age. With this, O’Conner’s anti-melodic singing and run on lines work to his advantage. It allows him to sing candidly and put all of his emotions successfully.
A good example of this is the song “Always.” Over a series of piano chords reminiscent of Randy Newman, who O’Conner worked with on a cover of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” O'Conner sings without restraint about mental health, and about getting help from other people throughout his journey through life. The vocals match the instrumentals perfectly, adding serendipity to a mostly sad song, implying that things will get better.
Another track where O’Conner is able to mesh minimalist instrumentals with his transparent emotion is in “Face to Face.” The keyboard riff in the first verse gives enough bounce for O'Conner to take off, and the guitar triplets during the chorus is one of the best moments on the album.
O’Conner continues his mastery in production with “Pluto Projector.” Like “Face to Face,” “Pluto Projector” is a love song, but one with a much sadder tone than the former. However, instead of singing about love lost, O’Conner sings about his anxiety about not being the boyfriend he wishes he could be, and the one he thinks he is supposed to be. “Am I meant to understand my faults?” O’Conner sings, “I don’t think so, I don’t think I’m supposed to understand myself.” This incredibly emotional, touching, and self aware lyricism combined with the superb crescendoing orchestral piece between the bridge and the outro make for an incredible song.
There are multiple other tracks where O’Conner is able to blend touching and personal lyrics with fantastic minimalist instrumentals. “10/10” is a fantastic upbeat opener about self improvement in the face of what O’Conner perceives as living at half his potential. “Never Had the Balls” is a great track about the fear of rejection, lead by an incredible synth beat and a great chime opening. “It Gets Better” is a track with a catchy synth and piano rhythm about learning lessons growing up.
Rex Orange County is able to tap into the zeitgeist of his generation. While O’Conner still has some things to clean up in his songwriting and production style, his strengths outweigh his weaknesses on “Pony.” In an age focused around mental health and self acceptance, O’Conner is refreshingly open and on brand. His songwriting and singing style makes it feel as if you are having a conversation with him throughout the album, and the stripped down instrumentals emphasize this quality in “Pony.” At worst, the album makes you feel disengaged, but at best you feel sincerely empathetic to what O’Conner is going through, and he makes you feel overly optimistic about the future.
In the future, Rex Orange County should look to build upon what he has built with “Pony.” There is still room to improve songwriting and his minimalistic instrumentals sometimes fall flat. If he can improve on both these fronts, the sky’s the limit.
Reviewer’s Favorite Song: “Face to Face,” “Pluto Projector,” “Always”
Reviewer’s Least Favorite Song: “Laser Lights”
Jim Krueger is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.