Twenty one year old, Alex O'Connor, or Rex Orange County as he’s more commonly known, has caused quite a stir in the music community since the release of his first album ‘Bcos U Will Never B Free’ in 2016 at the age of 18. The albums’ rustic and dreamy sound, layered with almost a sheet of melancholy gained Rex a small following in the music community, and followed this release with three singles: ‘Best Friend’, ‘Sunflower’ and ‘Untitled’. These singles took a shinier and more upbeat approach to the sound Alex had crafted. His follow up album ‘Apricot Princess’ was released weeks later, treating listeners to more of what Alex had to offer on his first album, but developed a jazzier sound with richer production. It was a combination of these sounds that caught the ear of rapper Tyler, The Creator, as he brought Alex in during the ‘Flower Boy’ sessions. Rex Orange County appeared on two tracks on Tyler’s 2017 album gaining him a lot of attention he may have otherwise never seen. Alex released ‘Loving Is Easy’, a song I’m sure you’ve all heard on plenty of adverts, towards the tail end of 2017 gaining him coverage on stations such as Radio 1. Oh, he also headlined The Park stage at Glastonbury last year.
So I guess you could say he’s had a pretty busy few years.
With not much other than a few shows here and there, Alex has been pretty quiet recently. Luckily last Friday he dropped his third album, ‘Pony’, which sees him expand on his sound to create a fresher, cleaner and polished idea of who Alex O’Connor is. Lead single ‘10/10’ helps us understand where he is in his life right now – being forced to grow up, cut people out and find his way from a darker place to where feels like home. As the song progresses it feels as though we are on this adventure growing with him, just to be greeted with a euphoric guitar solo as the song nears an end. It feels as though through this song Alex has found the motivation to write new music, ‘And though it’s still hard work to find the words / I’m still gonna write this f***ing song’, and is starting to feel settled in himself amidst all the change.
However this feeling isn’t maintained throughout the rest of the record, lyrically at least anyway. ‘Pony’ doesn’t take the melancholic approach of his previous two albums, instead gospel voices, strings and crystal clear production creates a very heavenly and bubbly feel to the album, despite some of the lyrical topics. It’s clear that he’s had a lot of time to himself to ponder on what his life has actually become since finding success, and within that has realised he actually doesn’t have it all figured out.
‘Stressed Out’ sees Alex hit a realisation that there are people in his life taking advantage of his fame for their own personal use but not looking out for him in the process: “They wanna lie and still be friends / But when you’re at your worst, they’re not there / And you discovered they don’t care”. The lyrics are sung over a soft organ-like synth, with layers of acoustic guitar and tambourine creeping in, making it feel surprisingly comforting. If there’s one thing ‘Pony’ excels in its making you feel comforted.
‘Always’ has a very distinct feeling of a ballad from the 70’s with the way Alex belts its chorus, almost something like Randy Newman would do. We see him sing about how he feels as though he is still the same person despite all the change in his life. Although it’s not a song for every mood, and sometimes may feel like something your auntie might share on Facebook, it feels very humble and sincere.
‘Never Had The Balls’ caught me off guard first listen with its quirky and danceable vibe that the rest of the album has seemed to lack, with some of the lyrics came across as almost cringe inducing at times; “This could be the best decision that you ever make” bridge mostly. However, the more and more I listened to this song the more I fell in love with it. It radiates similar energy to that of ‘Best Friend’; unapologetically uplifting and optimistic. The lyrics “I shouldn’t waste my precious time / On anybody feeding off of mine” sees Alex progress from his headspace during ‘Stressed Out’ and taking care of himself. We see him start doing things for himself and feeling free by doing so, it’s a true highlight of the album.
This is followed by ‘Pluto Projector’, another definite highlight of Rex Orange County’s career. A gentle guitar with the lyrics: “The great protector / Is that what I’m supposed to be? / What if all this counts for nothing / Everything I thought I’d be / What if by the time I realise / It’s too far behind to see?” opens the track hitting you with a whopping combo of loneliness and self doubt. The way this track is orchestrated is phenomenal, and Alex’s voice echoes that feeling of loneliness throughout the track, as he sings about how he doesn’t truly understand himself. There’s a sense of comfort in the way the track progresses, almost like he’s coming to terms with the fact that he’ll never really understand his innate workings. The last 30 seconds sounds similar to a Frank Ocean track, as the vocals are pitch shifted to sound deeper; something I could happily listen to more than 30 seconds of.
‘Face To Face’ hits you with a blissful accapella within the first few seconds, as several layers of Alex’s voice sing the opening lines. He sings about how he feels comforted when he’s with a girl, a character that seems to appear several times throughout the album, and how he wishes he was with her; it feels undeniably wholesome. ‘It Gets Better’ starts with an earworm synth lead, quickly followed by a salsa-esque drum beat. The tune eventually elevates into a spacey and light dance groove; something I’d love to hear Rex do more of in the future.
However, the album does come with its flaws. ‘Every Way’ is the weakest of the bunch here, as he sings about his love for this girl over a piano. Although it’s a cute two minute endeavour, it doesn’t feel as though it has as much of a reason to be placed on the album when compared to the rest of the track list. An additional blow is that it follows a pretty solid run of tracks including two of the best songs of his career: ‘Pluto Projector’ and ‘Never Had The Balls’. ‘Laser Lights’ is by no means a bad song, but it feels as though it’s dragging itself along at times. Regardless the horn and woodwind section in this song accompanies that feeling pretty successfully, as it makes you feel as though you’re just waking up in the morning, rolling your eyes and pulling yourself out of bed, just to sit on the edge of your bed for the next several minutes.
Album closer, ‘It’s Not The Same Anymore’, is a beautiful moment as Alex discusses and accepts how the changes in his life have affected his mental state, implying that writing music isn’t what it used to be for him and how he feels like has lost the desire to write that he used to have: “I used to be so hungry / Right now my stomachs full as hell”. However in the last verse “I'm doing this for myself / It's not the same anymore / It's better” I feel as though Alex has come circle and become content with the change around him.
All in all, ‘Pony’ is an album about dealing with change and going into adulthood, about not having all the answers but coming to terms with the fact that we never will, and about keeping those who care for you close. There is a feeling of heartache as in most songs he sings about missing a girl, which makes ‘Pony’ feel as though it’s his journey through constant rapid change with only one person remaining constant in his life. The album feels humble and sincere, a feeling Alex’s music has always carried, and is a valiant change of pace for Rex Orange Country. Although it’s not a perfect album, I’ve had the record on repeat over the last few days. The album feels undeniably cathartic, as it feels as though Alex has got a lot off his chest and is a definite step in the right direction for Rex Orange County.
Best Songs: ‘10/10’, Face To Face’, ‘Stressed Out, ‘Never Had The Balls’, ‘Pluto Projector’