This third album isn't a reinvention of the wheel that maybe a few were hoping, but with songs this catchy and immaculately produced, Rex Orange County's third album is a subliminal treat
For many, the highly anticipated third album from indie pop darling Alex O’Connor, AKA Rex Orange County has arrived with huge expectation from fans and the music industry. Ever since the release of his last record Apricot Princess at the age of 18, he has featured on Tyler the Creator’s Flower Boy, performed at both Reading&Leeds and Glastonbury as well as releasing two other singles with ‘Loving is Easy’ and ‘New House’. Now at 21, his profile has skyrocketed up, and his infectious pop tunes have allowed O’Connor to carve a little niche in a likewise crowded genre. So heading into Pony, he’s only released three singles in the lead up (’10/10′, ‘Pluto Projector’, and ‘Face to Face’), each one different instrumentally but still has that ROC stamp, and while Pony is in essence more of the same, that’s definitely not a bad thing considering how this album is yet another excellent collection of pop songs from O’Connor, and it cements him as one of the UK’s brightest young talents working in music today.
Kicking off with ’10/10′, a short ditty about self-improvement and aspiring to be a 10, it sets out the album’s thread in that O’Connor is self-reflecting on his career up to this point and the pressures that comes with it (“I had a year that nearly sent me off the edge, I feel like a five I can’t pretend”). Even though the lyrical content is subtly hidden under the synth background, its catchy refrain of “I did it again” can be conceived as reinforcing his desire to be top of everyone’s ratings.
A crucial part of this album’s success is the production that I could firmly note as some of the finest I’ve heard this year. It’s top class and this is mostly down to both O’Connor and co-producer Ben Baptie’s intuitive use of live and electronic instrumentation that gives each track a unique sound and its own identity. Whether its the brass stabs that punctuate on the somewhat freestyle rap ‘Laser Lights’ or the slow transition from keyboard synthesisers and pads to urgent strings and strumming guitars on ‘Never Had the Balls’ (that sounds reminiscent of Lily Allen’s ‘The Fear’), it’s a luscious organic blend that’s sweet on the ears and should reward listeners who return for second helpings. At times this could be a viewed as an obstacle if you’re searching for deeper lyrical meaning such as in ‘Laser Lights’ or ‘Stressed Out’ but for the most part, it’s an excellent mix.
On the other hand, if you’re seeking out catchy upbeat tempo hits like ‘Sunflower’, ‘Best Friend’ and ‘Loving is Easy’, you’re going to be let down by the slim offerings on here. ‘Face to Face’, ‘Never Had the Balls’ and ‘It Gets Better’ do fall into this category, but mostly the songwriting is composed with short choruses and refrains before a quick transition into the next. ‘Pluto Projector’ is one of these songs, an emotional ballad that ponders on his girlfriend’s relationship with him and whether his feelings for her will last forever. It starts thinly with electric guitar before transforming into gospel choir and piano until finally rounding off with a tremolo chamber orchestra and distorted voice. A beautiful song that had a tear in my eye during the closing verse.
However, while this album sees O’Connor differently than what was heard in Apricot Princess over two years ago, his sound has always had a juxtaposition between upbeat production but deeply personal lyrics and this is never more noticeable than on Pony. ‘Face to Face’ is about being away from home and feeling stuck in an undesirable situation where it’s tough to trust your own friends; but it’s ear worm chorus, glockenspiel chimes and groovy guitar licks contrasts its own subject matter with an uplifting mindset. It’s one of the best tracks on the album and is likely to be a fan-favourite for his upcoming tour.
The closing track ‘It’s Not the Same Anymore’ is 6mins long and returns to the opener’s themes of stress and hardship until exploding halfway through into melancholy and angst before returning to redemption with the line ‘It’s not the same anymore, it’s better’. Although it has faint whispers of Michael Kiwanuka’s ‘Cold Little Heart’, it’s structured in three parts and ending with a gorgeous sax riff, it’s a perfect piece of closure that leaves us on a bittersweet note but without compromising the uplifting message which runs through the album’s 10 tracks.
Pony isn’t a re-invention of the wheel, but it’s a progression in songwriting and production for O’Connor that contemplates his last two years which he has described as ‘hard’. Rest assured this does not feel like a little pony with huge weight among his shoulders, but rather a confident artist who will no doubt get better over the next decade. O’Connor, ‘you did it again’!
Rex Orange County’s Pony is out now via Sony Music.