Alex O’Connor, more commonly known as singer-songwriter Rex Orange County has put out his third project and second album, Pony. The album covers a range of topics, from dealing with the struggles of fame and insecurities to mental health issues and homesickness. O’Connor tweeted this on the day of its release:
— rex orange county (@rexorangecounty) October 25, 2019
Brimming with excitement, I gave the album a listen and reviewed it.
“10/10” – After hearing this song multiple times, it still doesn’t get old. O’Connor’s autotuned vocals are delightfully childlike, giving an upbeat feeling to a song about the intense subjects of self-doubt and learning to improve. My favorite lines are, “Yeah, I turned superhero / I’m comin’ in Bruce Wayne” and of course, “But this time I took control / And turned my s*** ’round / Sometimes you gotta cut a b**** out.” This track stands out among others for its ability to be playful but also has meaning.
“Always” – Huh? Am I still playing the same album? Those are the thoughts I had hearing the intro. This track starts with a dry vocoder…scream? O’Connor’s voice scoops upward from a low pitch, ending with a short high screech. After a brief moment of silence, soft piano and acoustic guitar accompany an introspective O’Connor. This track’s poppy-jazz instrumental drives home the lyrics, “It’s hard to make yourself believe / That it’ll get better when you feel defeated.” This seems to be a direct response to “10/10,” O’Connor realizing his denial of his mental health issues, needing to be told by someone else he is struggling. “Always” perfectly captures a concept many people struggle with—accepting the fact that they are struggling in the first place. The chorus ends reflecting this sentiment, “But until somebody sits me down / And tells me that I’m different now / I’ll always be the way I always am” The song’s arc is positive, O’Connor eventually recognizing the importance of his mental health. And even though there will always be a part of him muttering “I’m fine,” he is working on getting better, and that’s what matters.
“Laser Lights” – Piano is a common theme on this album, and this song is no different. Each verse of O’Connor rapping over the track ends in the middle of a sentence, reflecting the run-on array of topics this track tackles. This is one of my least favorites from the album. While hearing O’Connor rap about how much he hates “Dancing to the s*** that sounds nothing like me, huh? / Dancing to the s*** I like” similar to him singing how much he hates his voice on “Paradise,” it feels like such a wasted track. The second verse is as muddled as O’Connor’s feelings toward himself, “But now I’m losing my speed / Because I’m not the type of person who can handle defeat / And I’ll be caught up and confused about what matters to me.” Every song does not have to be life-changing and revolutionary, but hopefully, they could at least be cohesive. “Laser Lights” is reminiscent of O’Connor’s first project, bcos u will never be free which consisted mostly of percussion-heavy ballads and angsty spoken word verses. Maybe this track would be better suited for that era. The instrumental is nice but feels thrown away. The lyrics feel more like a B-side than anything else, bits and pieces from songs that previously didn’t make the cut. “Laser Light”’s final verse starts out with strong repetition “Palm to the face, when we have to speak I usually shoegaze / And if I saw you in public, I would pretend to tie my shoelace” but quickly abandons it afterward. This track simply scratches the surface when it should have gone deeper into O’Connor’s feelings toward himself and his music, meeting new people, and perfectionism.
“Face to Face” – The fourth track starts out acapella, similar to “Always,” creating rich harmonies that tune the listener in. My expectations for the song were similar sounds to either “New House” or “10/10” for its over-produced, poppy sound. But I was proven wrong. The first verse is shadowed by a light acoustic guitar and light synth ghosting underneath O’Connor’s vocals. The muffled instrumental reminds me of a romcom located in Paris with the couple meet cute-ing in a cafe. O’Connor beams, “She wakes, we face-to-face from the bed / I wish I could be with her instead / When we speak face-to-face from the head / Things go wayward and I end up upset” to end the chorus about homesickness. This track is warm and bright with its minimal production, the soft violins and xylophones complementing O’Connor’s vocals.
“Stressed Out” – Starting out with a yawn, muted plucky synth makes a comeback. This track tackles the fake friends that come with fame. “New House” walked so “Stressed Out” could run. O’Connor claims confidently in the first verse, “They wanna see me stressed out every day, I know it / They wanna lie and still be friends.” In both songs, O’Connor questions these “friends’” motives and his role in letting them be apart of his life. “Stressed Out’s” jingly drums pierce through the instrumental just enough to sit over O’Connor singing. The song ends with an adorable children’s choir echoing O’Connor and birds chirping, which flows seamlessly into its lesser counterpart, “Never Had the Balls.”
“Never Had The Balls” – Plucky synth, again. The instrumental has an 8-bit synth, this song sounding like a sister to “New House.” Take away O’Connor’s vocals and this song could be the end credits for a movie in the Wreck-It Ralph franchise. Keep the vocals and it could be the end credits for any teen high school rom-com. It’s an upbeat song that talks about O’Connor’s lack of confidence in talking to girls. “I thought it would be simple enough / And I had to grow up / Just to learn all the ways that it’s not.” The title of the song is weaved through the basic chorus, “But I never got the chance to tell you / I never had the balls to tell you / No, I never had the balls to tell you.” High-pitched autotuned vocals of O’Connor singing, “Balls to tell you / Balls to tell you / I never got the chance to tell you” sounds like an SNL parody until you realize it’s the song’s actual outro. “Never Had The Balls” easily could have been passed off to other male pop singers like Justin Bieber, Ed Sheeran, Adam Levine, or others and I wouldn’t know it belonged to O’Connor. This song feels insincere and out of place, and the more I listen to it the more I dislike it.
“Pluto Projector” – This track is one of the few standout tracks from Pony. The simple production of an acoustic guitar, piano, and electronic drums leave room for O’Connor’s powerful vocals. Lasting four minutes and 27 seconds, I still feel like this song is too short, mostly because Pony lacks songs like this one. O’Connor’s low pitched vocals end the song abruptly, which is jarring for the listener, but he makes up for it with the next track.
“Every Way” – This is Pony’s soft piano ballad, the one we’ve all been waiting for. I missed this sound on this album. O’Connor’s bcos u will never be free had “Paradise,” Apricot Princess “Happiness,” and Pony “Every Way.” O’Connor’s raw voice lulls, “No one prepares you for the way in which things change / But you’ve been amazing, saw me through my darkest stage.” Beautiful key changes occur during the chorus where he professes the utmost care for presumably his long-term girlfriend, Thea. While teetering on the line between cheesy serenade and appreciative love song, “Every Way” is soothing and heart wrenching, bringing out the most extreme emotions. But, the song ends abruptly and is too short for my liking. While simple down-to-earth ballads are what Pony is missing, this track also oozes the cheesiness. “Every Way” sounds like a song prodigy children would sing on music talent shows or in front of their parents for Mother or Father’s Day. But the fact that “Never Had The Balls” is over a minute and a half longer than “Every Way” is even more disappointing than the latter’s platitude.
“It Gets Better” – Low gritty synths reflect the lesser side of 80s synth-pop. It doesn’t get any better from here. Pony has only gone downhill. This song sounds like a Shawn Mendes b-side that somehow ended up in O’Connor’s lap. I like the song, but not for him. The violins in almost every track have gotten tiring, and don’t have the same effect as they did two tracks ago. No amount of quality production or smooth vocals could save this one or its atrocious second verse, “January, baby, I was takin’ my time / Spending summer and then we’ll be good in July.” I’m not sure what I dislike more—the violins and the end of the song or in the middle. At this point, almost every song on Pony has a different sound. Instead of sticking two a few cohesive flavors, O’Connor sampled every one the store had and ended up with too many options.
“It’s Not The Same Anymore” – Starting out with a picking pattern similar to Adele’s “Lovesong,” I was hooked. O’Connor quavers over only a guitar, “I’ll keep the pictures saved in a safe place / Wow, I look so weird here / My face has changed now / It’s a big shame.” “It’s Not The Same Anymore” culminates Pony—highlighting growing up and how easy things used to be. O’Connor croons “It’s not the same anymore / I lost the joy in my face / My life was simple before” with conviction, further expressing this notion with, “I should be happy, of course (Of course) / But things just got much harder / Now it’s just hard to ignore / It’s not the same anymore.” Violins and flutes flutter behind the guitar and add to the song, shifting it towards a more hopeful tone. O’Connor ties up every loose end on “It’s Not The Same Anymore,” giving listeners a sense of closure to this whirlwind of an album.
To sum up my feelings about this 33-minute-but-still-too-long album, I will quote Sharpay Evans—“This is not what I want / This is not what I planned / And I just gotta say / I do not understand.” While I do miss O’Connor’s old sound, I was looking forward to the new direction he was headed. Songs like “New House” and “Pluto Projector” fueled my excitement. But now, I wish he took a U-turn. All of the sounds on Pony put the listener through musical whiplash and leave them confused. While O’Connor did a mostly good job of tackling the topics of homesickness, mental health, insecurities and the struggles of fame, he spread himself too thin.
Rex Orange County went pop and honestly, I feel betrayed. Yes, I am slightly bitter because I Miss The Old Rex, but this new direction will only propel him as an artist. To use his own words,
it’s not the same anymore, it’s better
— rex orange county (@rexorangecounty) October 27, 2019
Featured image via Rex Orange County’s Twitter