Rex Orange County exhibits growing pains on ‘Pony’

Rex Orange County, born Alexander O’Connor, is a British alternative pop musician experimenting with what it means to exist within the genre. On his third studio album released on Oct. 25, Rex employs eclectic instrumentation and explores the complications of young adulthood. Departing from his previous works, which have a more amateur vibe, this album is carefully crafted and clean. Although Rex usually relies on acoustic guitar and piano to carry his songs, “Pony” is based around brass instruments and percussion with a distinctly electronic sound. 

As Rex experiments with different instruments and musical styles, his nasally smooth voice mostly remains identifiable. This album is his first solo major label debut after being recruited by Tyler, the Creator to work on “Flower Boy” and releasing his own album “Apricot Princess” in 2017. “Pony” is more whimsical and youthful than his other musical endeavors. The ten songs range from hopeful to gloomy, but maintain an introspective theme. 

“10/10” offers a catchy and rhythmic start to the record; it has lots of variety with tender verses and punchier tags like “sometimes you gotta cut a bitch out.” It’s about reflecting on a tough year but looking positively towards the next where if he gets his act together, he can go from a five to a ten. He’s telling his listeners he is ready to dust himself off and give the next year his best shot. The lyrics are fun and breezy, just like the beat: “I’ll give myself a little credit/Since I dealt with all the pain/I turned superhero/I’m comin in Bruce Wayne.”

“Always” has a slow but buoyant beat that almost betrays the melancholy lyrics. The chorus is tuneful and earnest, and Rex’s sweet nasal quality pairs well with the chimes and trumpets in the background. Rex reflects on mental health struggles and his challenge to accept his reality: “Yeah, there will always be a part of me that’s holding on/And still believes that everything is fine.” 

“Laser Lights” is distinguishable from the other tracks, breaking away from his usual acoustic guitar and keyboard in favor of jazzier instruments and percussion, in addition to some Ed Sheeran-inspired rapping. Although he channels his fellow British-songwriting contemporary successfully, Rex’s rapping struck me as a tad cringy—perhaps in the spirit of Sheeran himself—and misses the mark. 

“Face-to-Face” and “Stressed Out” are bouncy yet tranquil, with layered vocals and a zesty synth. However, in attempting to break away from his more acoustic style, Rex overcompensates with too much autotune that masks the unique facet of his voice. Rex explores the drama of his adolescence and young adulthood with high-spirited yet angsty lyrics that contrastingly work against the grain of electric piano and programmed beats. It almost works, but ultimately doesn’t land. He attempts to tackle emotional theatrics with bells and strings.

In a track that is as playful as the name suggests, “Never Had the Balls” picks up the pace, switching the tone from peaceful to silly and infectious. It opens with bird chirps and rolls into a bouncy beat and zippy rhymes that are so catchy, you may find your foot tapping. 

“Every Way” is a slower, simpler track that relies heavily on its lyrics and stripped-down keyboard accompaniment. But this more minimalistic style may be a mistake—the lyrics are not quite powerful enough to make up for the lack of accompaniment in the background. The album lost me a bit here, and I was waiting for the next track to lift me up again. 

A little unsettling and fast-paced, “It Gets Better” initially sounds intriguing, but is essentially lackluster. The off-putting minor key of the song sets the tone for the somber realizations. Rex acknowledges his own youth and inexperience: “Looking back ignorance was a breeze/I thought that I knew everything but I was naïve/Didn’t understand until the age of eighteen.” A poppy beat and disco synth fade into layered string instruments. The song is ineffectively both daydreamy and dismal. 

The album again redeems itself with “Pluto Projector,” which is filled with sensitive and inquisitive lyrics. The musician uses a series of rhetorical and existential questions to interrogate the meaning of his existence. “The great protector/Is that what I’m supposed to be?/What if all this counts for nothing/Everything I thought I’d be?” Chords swell and shrink in this number, and the vocals are filled with longing and melancholy. 

It’s a record about self-reflection and growth. In an interview with ALT 98.7 FM, Rex described the project for himself: “It’s about me looking at the way things have changed, and how much I’ve learned and how much I’ve grown up. Going from 18 to 21 you learn a lot, I think.” He also said that this album was about exploration, deviating from his previous style. With a focus on production, the album sounds a lot cleaner and more professional than “Apricot Princess.” However, some of Rex’s charm and warmth got lost in the synths and the autotune. His distinctive voice that paired well with his endearing amateur style gets muddled in this attempt to branch out and reflect.

I’m not sure if “Pony” is 10/10, but it’s getting there.

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