“I had a year that nearly sent me off the edge / I feel like a five, I can’t pretend” sings Alex O’Connor, aka Rex Orange County, on ‘10/10’, the opening track to his third album ‘Pony’. Over jangling, Nintendo-style synths and a slick drum line, the 21-year-old considers what it’s like when you’re feeling unsatisfied and suppressed in what you’re doing.
The year he’s talking about is the one that followed the release of his breakout album ‘Apricot Princess’. After the gorgeous collection of gooey love songs dropped, he spent time on the road touring the record, and from the outside it could look like he was at the top of his game. He’d appeared on Tyler, The Creator’s ‘Flower Boy’ album (Tyler flew him out to LA to work with him after hearing his debut album ‘bcos u will never b free’), had been included in a tonne of ‘ones to watch’ lists, toured with Frank Ocean and had up a rep for his raucous live shows (which, somewhat bizarrely, saw hundreds of kids moshing to his delightful blend of indie pop and neo-soul).
But behind the scenes O’Connor was struggling, feeling like he was stifled in his work, and trapped, he’s said, in “a tunnel that was very dark”. The first half of O’Connor’s new album ‘Pony’ tells of these darker times. The low-key ‘Stressed Out’ brazenly calls out fake friends who weren’t there when he needed them: “They wanna lie and still be friends / But when you’re at your worst, they’re not there”. ‘Always’ talks about how difficult it can be to ask for help when you need it: “It took a while to see that I was in need / Of help from somebody else”.
But despite the heavier subject matter, O’Connor’s natural charm and positivity for the future shines through. ‘10/10’ ends on an optimistic note as he prides himself on being able to move forward (“Now I’m safe and sound where I belong/It took all my strength to carry on”), while the second half of ‘Pony’ is a jubilant collection of hope-laced tunes.
‘Never Had The Balls’ gallops along, with O’Connor lauding the benefits of talking things through (“When I found my own way out / Was to open my mouth and be honest”). Starting with lilting keyboard chords and birdsong, it gradually builds with a killer ‘80s’-influenced bass line, cinematic strings and jaunty brass riffs. At one point the tune fleetingly ebbs away, with O’Connor’s girlfriend Thea Morgan-Murrell chiming in with a gorgeous, brief, vocal aside, before it all builds up again. It feels like a natural progression of ‘Apricot Princess’, and demonstrates of O’Connor’s skill as a composer.
His intuitive production and songwriting is something that shines throughout the record. Working only alongside producing partner Ben Baptie, O’Connor kept creative control of the entirety of ‘Pony’ – writing, producing and recording almost everything. He hops through different genres, fusing countless influences with his trademark sound. ‘It Gets Better’ blends R&B beats and woozy, layered vocals with soaring, orchestral strings, while album closer ‘It’s Not the Same Anymore’ brings Sufjan Stevens-inspired baroque pop elements into the mix.
Despite the bold production, though, it’s the strikingly stripped-back ‘Everyway’ that provides the most emotive moment on ‘Pony’. A Randy Newman-style piano line accompanies O’Connor’s exposed, ardent vocals; it’s a tear jerking, future-film-soundtracking beauty.
But whatever he’s doing musically – whether it’s piano and vocals or a full orchestra – the entirety of ‘Pony’ is threaded together with O’Connor’s honest lyrics, intelligent writing and above all, his overwhelmingly positivity. The album finishes with ‘It’s Not The Same Anymore’, a six-minute opus that ends with O’Connor concluding: “It’s not the same anymore / It’s better”, wonderfully bringing the album full circle from ‘10/10’.
A dazzling follow up to ‘Apricot Princess’, Rex Orange County’s third studio album is a total delight. It may be miserable outside, and the world’s going to shit, but try listening to ‘Pony’ and not feeling a little bit more optimistic about the future. Go on, we dare you.