When Rex Orange County released “Loving is Easy” over two years ago, the track quickly racked up hundreds of millions of streams. Adopted by the same teenagers who spent 2014 scrolling through Vine and wearing black–and–white checkered Vans, it was a happy–go–lucky song about swimming in a sticky–sweet romance. Older songs like “Sunflower” and “Best Friend” rose to the surface and became coveted pieces of the niche known to most as Bedroom Pop.
There’s something distinctive about the sound of Alex O’Connor, the artist behind Rex Orange County, who has now put out three studio albums. His most recent, Pony, was released this past week. O’Connor articulates a blunt sense of truth, paired with contrasting, rather than complementary, production. However, his latest work has a newfound sense of maturity embedded throughout its ten tracks.
On “Face to Face,” O’Connor vocalizes the animosity he feels towards love and who he shares it with, resulting in a toxic pattern of fights and miscommunication rather than romance and intimacy. While the theme itself strongly parallels that of Frank Ocean’s “White Ferrari,” it strays far away from the conventions of a ballad, instead embodying an upbeat, hop–along production. “I grew up, you grew down, we found out / Everything matters now / We grew up while you let yourself down I want out” opens and closes the song, properly characterizing the track as a moment of reflection.
This reflection carries on throughout as a pivotal sign of growth in O’Connor, who has always relied upon a stream–of–consciousness style to properly turn his thoughts into concrete statements. However, while his 2017 track “Best Friend” comes from the perspective of a boy who openly admits he will hurt the girl he is seeing, the thoughts on Pony are much less defined. On “Always”, the singer relays the discontinuity between how he perceives his own mental state and the people around him. He questions whether or not his life is truly normal. On “Laser Lights,” the poppy melody focuses on a dissatisfaction with social interactions and being an artist who dislikes their own art.
The album’s emotional climax arrives with “Pluto Projector,” a raw confession that is sonically minimalistic, until the influx of string instruments in the final moments. Its a love song, a dedication to his long–time girlfriend. It seems as though O’Connor’s moments of clarity come when they are directed at how he feels towards others rather than himself. He fits right in with Generation Z adolescents searching for a sense of identity by attaching it to something else—a romantic partner, a political viewpoint. There is something endearing about his candor, but it doesn’t accomplish beyond a heightened sense of affection and confusion.
Pony signifies a new phase in the canon of Rex Orange County that's defined by an honest acceptance of not knowing. Through maintaining his common tropes of talk–singing and self–doubt, coupled with a distinctive sound, this album does well to identify his growth. It seems as though Alex O’Connor is navigating the same themes of distress and lack of identity that plague his audience, which a simple Twitter refresh would reveal. Above all else, he represents an embrace of denial—and beckons the rest of us to follow suit.