By: Tatum Larsen
Photo Courtesy of: Sony Music Entertainment
Rex Orange County released his third album “Pony” on Oct. 25. Serving as Rex’s first studio album with the major label Sony, “Pony” is a more refined version of his trademark bedroom pop sound, which made him an intrinsic part of the Gen X cannon. Rex, also known as Alexander O’Connor, released his previous album, “Apricot Princess,” in 2017, immediately following his feature on Tyler the Creator’s critically acclaimed album, “Flower Boy.” With jaunty yet calm melodies that are reminiscent of Mac Demarco and Frank Ocean, Rex put his vulnerabilities on display as he sings about the perils of teenage romance and growing up.
In “Pony,” the “soft boy” incarnate finds himself grappling with his newfound success and rising expectations amidst dealing with his own mental health struggles. The songs, which depict this plight, are often interjected by sounds that give the ten-track album a juvenile quality. While his previous hits — “Loving Is Easy” and “Sunflower” to name a few — evoke a ‘70s pop ballad vibe, “Pony” employs a more child-like energy with sugary synths, programmed beats, bells, cinematic strings, horns, electric piano and bird chirps.
Opening with a crooning chorus of Rex’s layered vocals, “Always” serves as an easy-going track with flits of buoyant instrumentals. Rex cruises through the song as a sweet trumpet and recorder notes swoop in and out, making it a fun and relaxing listen.
Rex’s maturing lyrical ability matches his growth as he shares personal and vague anecdotes about his life experiences since garnering fame. This is evident in the album’s fifth track, “Stressed Out,” in which he sings about the common young adult experience of cutting out toxic friends.
Filled with beautiful instrumentals and flowing tonal shifts, the album reaches the zenith of its experimentation with “Pluto Projector.” With his classic aching inflections, Rex proclaims his love for his longtime partner Thea, who has been an anchor for him during his journey of navigating his newfound success. With lines like, “Spending the years together / Growing older everyday / I feel at home when I’m around you / And I’ll gladly say again / I hope the encore lasts forever / Now there’s time for us to spend,” Rex’s love for Thea is palpable and shows their maturation as a couple.
In his final song, “It’s Not the Same Anymore,” Rex delves into the topic of his mental health struggles while taking stock of his new life and success. With a slow-moving R&B beat carrying lines like, “It’s just not the same anymore / I lost the joy in my face / My life was simple before / I should be happy, of course,” Rex speaks about the frustrating feeling of being bogged down by the dampening effect of his depression to the point that he cannot even enjoy his success. The majority of the song focuses on the drearier aspects of his experience until there is a tonal shift nearing the end of the song. At this point, Rex goes from singing about the depths of his despair to his willingness to cope with his issues honestly.
Though Rex’s music played a large part in opening the new decade of the internet age, the fleeting success of many artists and the prospect of being pigeonholed in order to stay relevant is a great area of concern for him. In this way, his album is not just a deviation from his typical sound but a soft boy rebellion that shows his range. Along with being a small act of rebellion, the album, along with “It’s Not the Same Anymore,” is meant to be a positive affirmation sticky note on the mirror of self-doubt that affirms that everything will turn out alright.
Like Rex,“Pony” is not perfectly polished. Known for his “work in progress” sound, Rex instead shows his progression and maturity as an artist. The songs on this album are not without trademark sincerity or charm. Rather, they are more refined than his previous work, which was truly juvenile rather than just trying to give the appearance of being so. Maintaining his candid lyricism, Rex draws new boundaries for himself as he enters a new stage in his life and career. “Pony” adds a new layer of depth to Rex’s sound without sacrificing the authenticity that made his work compelling from the start.