Review: Rex Orange County’s ‘Pony’ focuses on hope

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Review: Rex Orange County’s ‘Pony’ focuses on hope

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Rex Orange County’s work is loaded with (or almost entirely made up of) deeply personal anecdotes and multifaceted experiences with love. A new “anti-pop” pop star in recent years, he employs the method of many an adored musician: maintaining lyrical introspectiveness in order to communicate universally-relatable feelings. This method has paid off with his list of animated singles as well as his previous two albums, “Bcos U Will Never B Free” and “Apricot Princess.” It doesn’t hurt that his musicality is simultaneously dramatic and playful, incorporating genres as varied as garage rock, synth-pop, and, especially in his past two albums, sweeping orchestral music.

Alex O’Connor, better known as Rex Orange County, is only twenty-one; still, what makes his discography so unique is his penchant for awkward musical experimentation and concerns about living in the neoliberal world of the 21st century. To the latter point, in his song “Green Eyes, Pt. II,” he rants about the detrimental effects of money on relationships and politics, then informs us “No matter when you hear this note/There’s always gonna be a prick running this country.” In “Waiting Room,” he asks if God is the one who “always decides” our fate, then “What’s the point of living life?” All of this demonstrates that Rex’s existentialist music is worth more than the melodramatic romantic despair his persona exemplifies. He is curiously intimate and excitingly experimental for a pop star, especially within his better polished second album and his 2017 single “Loving is Easy.”

Now in 2019, two years after “Apricot Princess,” he releases his new album “Pony.” Judging from its upbeat tone, Rex is feeling much less disdainful. The lyrics, while still speaking to a sense of existential confusion and anxious expectations, are now met with hopeful solutions. In his opening song “10/10,” he expresses his frustrations with his year touring before his hopeful conclusion that “if I get my sh*t together, this year maybe I’ll be a 10.” Likewise, the album’s concluding song “It’s Not the Same Anymore” finishes by proclaiming that his life is “better” than before. In between, Rex melodically explores his caring relationship with his girlfriend and gripes about fake friends. It’s all very simple. This is not to say that Rex has devolved from his earlier work or that his new happiness has detracted from his music. It’s just that his lyrical compositions have certainly become much closer to traditional pop, which, in pop fashion, sacrifices personal and social concerns or musical experimentation for more mundane, apolitical content.

Similarly, the musical riffs of “Pony” and wonderfully playful melodies are fully within the pop tradition. While there is some sonic exploration akin to his other songs–some jazzy riffs here, some nature sounds there–the album is more strictly within the realm of clean, concise pop. The few trademarks of his oeuvre that do stick around are thankfully among his most enticing: his unabashedly mumbly, raspy voice and the constant melodic variations within each song. Every song on “Pony,” from his snarky “Laser Lights” to his reflective “Pluto Projector” never let up in their musical bravado, always concluding at new and delightful heights.

The result, while not as riveting or inventive as his earlier music, is a unified, breezy collection of songs by a twenty-something (happily) still trying to figure it all out. It’s quite wonderful that his music has reached a comforting, authorial uniformity and even better that he’s doing well, but here’s hoping that he doesn’t leave his deeper social concerns or experimental streak behind as his career progresses.