Indie artist Alexander O’Connor (better known as Rex Orange County) released his third album, titled “Pony,” to much fan anticipation. Although this is Rex’s first album release with Sony Music, his musical integrity remains as if he were still an angsty teenager recording music alone in his bedroom. “Pony” chronicles his struggles with his newfound fame, mental health and love while retaining the earnest lyrics and soulful sounds that he is best known for. Although he stumbles through some of the more experimental songs, Rex Orange County delivers on a satisfying, emotional and heartfelt album that stacks up well next to his previous releases.
The first single that was released was “10/10” and it is admittedly one of the weakest songs on the album. The synth-heavy beat, autotuned vocals and catchy lyrics are far different from the poignant lyrics and soulful harmonies that were featured on “Apricot Princess” and the 2018 single “Loving is Easy.” Thankfully, it is also one of the shortest. By “Always,” he returns to his roots: his mournful voice lends perfectly to painfully sincere lyrics in which he acknowledges that “It’s hard to make yourself believe/ That it’ll get better when you feel defeated/ And carrying on is easier said than done.” The instrumental features a slow piano melody, which allows his voice and the accompanying trumpets to shine through. Rex is known for his lovesick tunes, but he handles this shift into more serious topics incredibly and appropriately adjusts his usually euphoric sound to be simple and sad.
Although the beat and trumpets of “Laser Lights” musically fit in well with the rest of the album, Rex’s rapping sticks out from the otherwise perfectly crafted mix of passionate signing. The few short verses about his dislike toward fake social interactions don’t resonate as well. Thankfully, the song quickly fades into the groovy “Face to Face.” The song is an upbeat, ethereal tune that is an ode to 1970s pop music. Rex toes the line between cheery and earnestly wistful as he sings about his long distance relationship and its tribulations.
By the fifth track, “Stressed Out,” Rex Orange County has made it clear that this album is a window into the troubles and joys he has faced since “Apricot Princess.” The fifth track is significantly less elaborate, but it is just as vulnerable as the other songs when Rex explains the downfalls of fame — fake friends, endless stress and crushing isolation.
“Never Had the Balls,” an account of the helplessness he has felt in the new phase of his career, again exemplifies the negativity Rex has felt. Unlike “Stressed Out,” however, he points to a light at the end of the tunnel. At first, it is as overwhelmingly upbeat as the first track, but it quickly develops a more steady and relaxed rhythm that highlights strumming guitars, an electric keyboard and Rex’s unmistakable harmonies. The song slows almost to a standstill for the bridge, which allows Rex to flex his incredible vocal range and the orchestra to make its first appearance. The violins are so beautiful and heartfelt that it is nothing short of moving. “Never Had the Balls” launches into its peppy chorus again before the palatable elation is toned down to blend nicely into the next track.
Arguably the strongest track on the album, “Pluto Projector,” encapsulates a love letter from Rex to his longtime girlfriend, Thea. It’s one of the longest compositions in “Pony,” at over four minutes, but the song doesn’t feel drawn out. The lyrics are sublime and poetic; Rex’s aching intonations perfectly accompany it. The lyrics stray away from the ordinary, overused metaphors of mainstream pop and instead provide a deeply intimate feel. At the same time, the string orchestra flourishes slowly and crescendos into an arresting, beautiful harmony. It’s a masterful moment that showcases Rex’s lyrical prowess and the cinematic, romantic music that has propelled him to fame amongst the indie crowd. The tear-jerking “Pluto Projector,” justifiably at the center of the album, truly displays the extent of Rex’s musical talent.
After such a showstopper, “Every Way” fittingly keeps it short and sweet. It’s a sorrowful ballad that reduces the intensity of the previous instrumentals to only a piano. It provides a much needed break before starting another emotionally-wrought tune, “It Gets Better.” Like “Pluto Projector,” this song is an ode to Thea. While it’s thematically similar, it’s not lyrically redundant. Rex Orange County approaches his care for Thea in a new way; the singer-songwriter shares a raw, genuine look into the love and growth he has experienced in the past couple of years despite his personal and mental struggles. His sincere cadence blends exquisitely with the violins in the background and ends on a high note.
“It’s Not The Same Anymore” wraps the album up nicely, combining the most prominent themes into a chill, but touching, final tune. In soulful vocals and honest lyrics, he confides in the listener that he understands that he “needs to get help.”
Rex assures his audience that he is healing and learning — his final song ends so genuinely that it is impossible not to root for the singer. He branches out of his usual, lovestruck lyrics to encompass more adult themes, but manages to keep the heartrending romance and enthralling musical accompaniments that he has honed with his two previous albums.
Verdict: Despite the juvenile name, “Pony” is a mature step in Rex Orange County’s musical career. “Pony” is a powerful compilation that is sure to attract new listeners and satisfy longtime fans.