One of the most hypnotizing songs on Tyler, The Creator’s 2017 album Flower Boy is “Boredom.” The catchy tune fastened itself to the public’s memory because of the enchanting chorus from Alex O’Connor, who goes by the stage name of Rex Orange County. The mantra “Find some time to do something,” is a simple phrase that manages to pull on the heartstrings of self–recognition, reeling listeners in from the dark and lonely corners.
In the vein of artists like Lorde or Snail Mail, O’Connor has the gift of being able to bestow the unromantic truths of modern youthful angst in simple and poetic verse. Though he drew inspiration from his life in and around London, it’s easy to see the way his experiences translate to the other side of the pond. The oppressive and overwhelming qualities of adolescent city life are by no means characteristic of one country, or even one continent—they're an elemental feature of the acutely urban paranoia that infects us all after a while.
Being young gives way to a hyper–awareness of the insignificance of our individual existence – which then ultimately becomes the foundation of the apathetic attitudes that we adopt. All of this is to say that every generation yields a fresh crop of spokespeople for these vague sensibilities, and to me, it seems that Alex O’Connor is now one of them.
Some of his lesser–known songs are the emotional heavyweights, infusing the overdone sad–boy persona with a fresh and powerful dose of soul. “A Song About Being Sad” is the foil to the more popular “Happiness,” as O’Connor croons about deceiving himself about the false romance of a failed relationship that was little more than a strong physical attraction. He mocks the cliched overuse of the words “I love you,” in times when we know they're meaningless. In a sort of life lesson on young love, O’Connor ends the song with the sage advice, “It’s not worth forgetting about yourself / Because of one fucking girl.”
That song—from his first album Bcos U Will Never B Free—is, however, an outlier from the romance of the rest of O’Connor’s songs. Often self–deprecating and critical, he talks about the way he holds himself back from love on songs like “Untitled.” And in “Belly (The Grass Stains),” we hear O’Connor at his most lyrically beautiful, as he draws out his voice over a quiet keyboard. The imagery of a “wedding ring left amongst the crust,” might be specific to one of his personal memories, but the words still resonate within all of us, as he ends the stanza with a rejection of the Mona Lisa in a new version of the age–old loss of innocence.
O’Connor’s music is rarely, if ever, fully happy. Even “Loving Is Easy” has mentions of dark times before the happiness of this love. Several of his songs are fraught with a nagging sense of anxiety, even if he never outrightly sings of it. This exhaustion and nervousness with the world around him, and especially as it pertains to finding a way to love both yourself and those around you, is a sense that I think we can all relate to in some form or another here at Penn.
The rush of city life is sometimes more paralyzing than freeing. And while our backgrounds may differ greatly from O’Connor's, the foundation of these emotions is the same. Beyond all of that is his modern adaptation of soul music.
O’Connor is truly a force to be reckoned with, and will almost certainly become one of those artists who years down the road is considered to be representative of the perspective of his time. Those who crave a live performance from him are in luck—Rex Orange County is set to play , right before the start of the new school year. Maybe there’s no better time to come to terms with the meaning behind his music, and use it to take on a more grounded outlook for the months to follow.
Get tickets here (or try, they're sold out).
Thursday, August 2 at 7:30 p.m. at Union Transfer