For those who haven’t kept up with Alexander O’Connor’s work as Rex Orange County, perhaps his work on Tyler the Creator’s Flower Boy will ring a bell. His combination of neo soul, alternative hip-hop and art-pop has set him apart since his 2016 self-released debut, bcos u will never b free. Apricot Princess (2017) substantially elaborated on his sound, bolstering his instrumentation and and diversifying his vocal delivery. This gave Pony quite a lot to live up to. This third album reincorporates O’Connor’s roots in bedroom pop into his expanded sonics, while continuing his catalog’s through-line of relatable charm.
Driven by sugary synths and a tight half-time beat, “10/10” shows how much Rex Orange County can do with simple ideas. His voice takes on an unassuming tone, talking candidly about feeling down and understanding how an attitude change could make all the difference. The aptly titled “Never Had the Balls” achieves a similar effect as it delves into the fear of rejection. It manages to remain simultaneously dynamic and stripped down, adding songbird field recordings and bouncy acoustic guitars at opportune times. It might give you flashbacks to junior high, but the matter-of-fact delivery has an undeniable authenticity.
Other than those two forays into pop, Pony maintains a strong R&B presence. The melodic bass lines and pleasant piano chords of “Always,” as well as the slow-grooving guitar ballad “Pluto Projector,” reintroduce O’Connor’s talent as a songwriter and arranger. With pop music increasingly more concerned with timbre than musicality, his beautiful chord progressions and grand saxophone lines are a breath of fresh air. Such musical depth might seem to contrast his guy-on-the-street approach to singing, but his melodies are far from simple.
“Laser Lights” combines the aforementioned instrumentation with bombastic beat changes and harmonic flute, as Rex Orange County’s vocal cadence draws nearer to rap. While still melodic at its core, his rhythmic qualities are both idiosyncratic and infectious. It’s what allows the piano ballad “Every Way” to push and pull its tempo without sounding disjointed.
O’Connor can let heartfelt lyrics hang in the air before a cathartic crescendo: “But you’ve been amazing/ Saw me through my darkest stage/ And you always forgave me.” His earnestness becomes more believable within these more intimate cuts, as though you’re right beside him to hear the ambient noise of his piano as he switches chords and presses pedals.
From vocoded choirs to arpeggiated guitars, “Face to Face” is one of Pony’s most impressive instrumental cuts. This isn’t to say it demands your attention, because it’s easy to get lost in O’Connor’s ode to star-crossed lovers. The instrumentation he uses becomes the canvas for his storytelling, not just an excuse to introduce weird sounds. It’s why “Stressed Out” can function admirably as a drum-less version of Tyler, The Creator’s “Boredom.” You can appreciate his compelling ability on the electric piano or you can sit beside him as unloads about social anxieties.
The staccato synth arpeggiations of “It Gets Better” transition to swelling strings so seamlessly that it can be hard to pinpoint where one begins and the other ends. Rex Orange County sees his expanded instrumentation as one with his humble beginnings. The song doesn’t leave bedroom pop behind, but finds new angles on that sense of proximity. Six-minute closer “It’s Not the Same Anymore” is the best example of that. From a single guitar to an overwhelming orchestral climax, O’Connor remains grounded in human emotion.
Rex Orange County is one of the few projects of its kind to change for the better. The inspiration O’Connor had three years ago with bcos u will never b free is clearly still a factor in his writing to this day. The fact his arrangements have inflated in no way detracts from his personal investment in what he does. For him to have progressed this far without falling flat is a testament to his legitimacy as a songwriter and arranger.