Rex Orange County’s ‘Pony’ isn’t quite a 10/10

Nicole Johnson

Breaking a two-year hiatus from releasing music, British artist Alex O’Connor, better known as “Rex Orange County,” dropped his highly-anticipated “Pony” album on Oct. 25. The 21-year-old musician has staked claims in the pop and indie music scenes under his “Rex” alias, which O’Connor devised from both an old nickname and early-2000s teen drama series “The O.C.” The former music student was projected to fame upon the release of the self-recorded and produced “bcos u will never b free,” which features the artist’s distinct voice atop an intimate, simplistic guitar. O’Connor followed the 2015 LP up with the even more impressive “Apricot Princess” album, a soulful production that explored young love and was a true indicator of O’Connor’s range of talent.

O’Connor’s “Pony” cover. Courtesy of Sony

A new turn from his soft bedroom numbers, “Pony” reflects maturity while expressing growing pains. The album is an undoubtedly exciting project for the young singer; his exploration of unconventional sounds and lyrics conveying tangible emotions, namely a recurring self-doubt, makes O’Connor all the more relatable and alluring to listeners. Featuring a reflection of the complications he’s endured in his hiatus, “Pony” serves as a platform for catharsis. The 10-song record contains both cheerful beats and emotionally-weighted self-analyses that take audiences along with him to periodic highs and lows. What truly shines through is O’Connor’s developed production and mindset, yet at times the album lacks some of the boyish charm that made hits like 2017’s “Loving is Easy” so easy to love.

O’Connor’s lyrics are quite mature in that they explore a range of emotions inherent with both young adulthood and feelings specific to the musician. On the day of the album’s release, the singer posted on his Instagram to address his fans: “[I] wanted to say thank you. Thank you for caring about me, being patient and sticking around…Thank you for making me feel so loved in a time where I have really struggled to enjoy life.” He followed up by claiming he has made positive mindset shifts, finishing the message with, “This album will change my life… love from Alex.”

O’Connor’s emotional toils are made clear throughout the album; songs like the cleanly-produced “It’s Not the Same Anymore” manifest his developed consciousness while serving up both emotional string samples and uplifting lines on difficult changes. As a violin-guitar blend revolves around his warm and reflective croon, O’Connor takes listeners full circle from the preceding “It Gets Better” track. “It’s not the same anymore—it’s better,” he softly reassures himself.

Expressing his insecurities through song seems to help O’Connor find himself; his acceptance that he’ll “always be the way [he] always [is]” in the introspective and slow “Always” lends him an identity that’s as mature as it is honest. He is sure to maintain his juvenile teenage persona, however, in tracks like “Never Had the Balls,” that share a youthfulness in both its bouncy rhythm and subject matter. This duality is admirable, but irregular at times; though O’Connor brings many back to his “salad days” in several tracks, his experimentation with new sounds doesn’t offer the valued coherence of his older projects. 

The LP’s star is “Pluto Projector.” With O’Connor’s voice at its most tender, he questions himself: “I’m still a boy inside my thoughts, am I meant to understand my faults?…Maybe you do, and that’s good for you…in time I’ll do the same.” As the song progresses with soft guitar and echoing strings accompanying, listeners find themselves drifting in a celestial state; the piece is as raw as it is powerful.

Closely following in excellence is “Face to Face,” an upbeat narrative that actually details the struggles of long-distance relations with O’Connor’s longtime girlfriend, Thea Morgan-Murrell. The artist layers bubbly guitar and lively percussion with honey-like vocals, and the product is a heartwarming hit that compliments itself quite well.

“Pony” isn’t all praiseworthy, however. Upon listening to “10/10,” the album’s opener and prematurely-released single, I found myself cringing—something I never thought possible in regards to O’Connor—as an artificial-sounding synthesizer resounded over lyrics like, “I turned superhero, I’m comin’ in Bruce Wayne.” For the first time since I’d discovered him, I was taken aback in the wrong way; electronic beats combined with the message of overcoming obstacles was too cliche for such a creative mind as O’Connor’s.

“Laser Lights,” a rap-esque track with no true chorus, continues this bad streak. Rhythmic bars don’t work in this sporadic piece—O’Connor’s thick accent amongst scattered outbreaks of brass instruments is an unfortunate departure from previous triumphs in jazz-like pop featured on “Apricot Princess.”

“Pony” is both a success and nonevent. Atop O’Connor’s nuanced, smooth vocals, there’s too much of something: whether it be interruptions on behalf of the orchestra or outdated synthesizers, many songs are filled with too much pizzaz and too little “Rex.” What is so exquisite and warm about his earlier songs is their intimacy; O’Connor’s self-production permeates through every tender guitar strum and each bouncy beat change. In several songs on “Pony,” this isn’t the case.

So no, “Pony” isn’t the “old Rex” many hoped to hear on the singer’s new LP. But O’Connor has matured as both a musician and person, and so have we. Regardless of the album’s imperfections, I’ll continue to listen in on how the talented musician navigates his way through song and thought. 

O’Connor’s “Pony” tour will kick off in early January of 2020.