How do you navigate a reality wherein you’re meant to feel grateful and positive at all times? This is the central question of Rex Orange County’s latest record, Pony. Released on October 25, the album is an equal parts lovesick and anxious affair. Across Pony, Rex alludes to having a “year that nearly sent [him] off the edge,” as on opener “10/10.” His endearing and romantic croons, most present on 2017’s Apricot Princess, are tempered by vocoder and synth lines belying something sinister marching through his pop exterior. Rex Orange County is in a happy place, a good place, and yet, he’s struggling.
When you’re known for making lovelorn serenades to your beloved girlfriend, is there any room for unhappiness in your work? Are you entitled to discomfort as an artist?
With these questions in mind, Pony is Rex’s first-ever self-reckoning. He begins the album with a poppy tune in “10/10.” Even so, the lyrics teeter on cutting: “I did it again, I did it again / No control over my emotions / One year on and I still can’t focus.” Rex attempts to balance his evident pain with his persona as a jeering indie pianist. It’s a tall order, and yet, Rex pulls it off. Beneath bubbling pop sensibilities, “10/10” establishes the album’s thesis in earnest: Rex Orange County is a complex figure, capable of the same highs and lows as any other human being. In this self-humanization, we find Pony to be an album concerned with balance.
On “Stressed Out,” for all its warmth, Rex battles the turmoil coming with fame. “Pluto Projector” sees Rex grappling with newfound pressures in the form of heavy rhetorical questions: “The great protector / Is that what I’m supposed to be? / What if all this counts for nothing / Everything I thought I’d be? / What if by the time I realize / It’s too far behind to see?” Both songs evidence a cardinal truth: Rex Orange County is tired of playing chipper. There is more to him than the average love song or self-deprecating humor. He uses Pony to express a desire to step into his complexities as a man growing into himself and fame. Again, all of this yearning can be satisfied through proper balance.
Take “Face to Face.” As Rex explained on Instagram, this is a track about feeling deeply trapped and unhappy. Yet the instrumentation is exceptionally becoming. The harmonies and vocal layering swell, and in the trough of his vocal delivery, Rex soothes us over jittering guitars. There’s a natural percussion and touching strumming to the cut as well. A wonderful subtlety coats the main melody. The rhythms are engaging but quiet. Everything about “Face to Face” screams peace, and yet it opens with images of Rex retching and having a panic attack. By this juncture of the album, we’re starting to get the sense Pony thrives off dissonance.
The song titles suggest as much, too. Just look at “Stressed Out,” “Never Had The Balls,” and “It Gets Better” as prime examples of Rex’s struggle to be both Rex Orange County and wounded Alex O’Connor. Pony acts as the deconstruction of persona. There is too much pressure on Rex’s music for him to be happy (“I should be happy, of course”). With Pony, the medium allows him to create his least contrived work to date. There’s a lightness and freedom to his deliveries. And the conviction of his live renditions of “10/10,” in particular, signals to us Rex Orange County is at his present creative zenith.
Picking apart the album is one task, but Rex affirms this reading of his album without much work on closer, “It’s Not The Same Anymore.” The captivating journey of “It’s Not The Same Anymore” takes place atop tender and plucking guitars. From the jump, this is the most somber track on the album. The barest, too. Rex strips away the jubilant aesthetic he is so well known for and allows himself to emote without fear. Here, Rex wrestles with himself directly, as opposed to the coy admissions coloring Pony.
“So many feelings, struggling to leave my mouth / And it’s not that rare for me to let myself down / In a big way / But I had enough time and I found enough reason to accept that”—Rex Orange County, “It’s Not The Same Anymore”
These are important confessions from an artist who presents himself as happily in love and in touch with his emotions. “It’s Not The Same Anymore” is a moment of grand unmasking. This track feels like Alex speaking to us through Rex Orange County’s platform. It’s a moment of truth for both entities, and that truth is a tad bleak. And that’s okay. We accept Alex’s unhappiness, for he does not drown in it. Nor does he inject his jostled state with cloying sentiment. The matter-of-fact writing keeps us engaged and validates the emotions of the opening, which brings us to the morphing hook.
On the first pass, Rex is as clear as can be: “I lost the joy in my face / My life was simple before / I should be happy, of course / But things just got much harder.” He is battling fame and the pressure to be happy, given his music and his circumstances. Within the first arc of “It’s Not The Same Anymore,” we see Rex buckling under the pressure to be Rex. We get the sense Alex is trapped within Rex, and this song is his only means of escaping. It’s the desperate use of “just,” which keeps us from rolling our eyes. The “just” signifies Rex Orange County is more than aware of his privileged position. There’s a touch of guilt to the hook, then, which endears us to Rex. He gets it, and we get him.
Whether the “it” of this song is making music or his feelings about fame is unclear. They feel almost interchangeable at the tail-end of the hook and start of the second verse. No one is prepared for fame, reads the verse. There’s a glimmer of Alex within the second verse, too. “I’m tired of feeling suppressed,” Rex sings. Later adding: “And I can’t wait to hit the bed / But tomorrow makes me scared.” From this set of bars, we’re left with a sordid impression of Alex’s relationship with Rex. To be Rex Orange County is to be always-on. This is the dream, after all. And yet, Alex is scared to fall asleep, because tomorrow is terrifying. A waking nightmare.
Even if we consider the darkness of 2016’s bcos u will never be free, “It’s Not The Same Anymore” is an untread ground for Rex. In the third verse, Rex grapples with both the blessings and demons he has invited into his life. “I used to be so hungry / Right now, my stomach’s full as hell,” he sings before noting he hates himself. The dichotomy here is apparent, but the turn of the song is the real meat of “It’s Not The Same Anymore”: “I can’t keep wishing things will be different.” Now, Rex and Alex are one. Pony goes from the pursuit of balance to tasked with Alex and Rex making peace with themselves.
When we arrive at the fifth verse, the hook evolves once more, and optimism peaks through. Having reconciled the differences between Alex and Rex—perhaps even to the point of them merging identities—Rex can sing about better days. “It’s not the same anymore / It’s better / It got better,” he concludes. Rex Orange County has made it out from under the pressure of happiness by indulging in his unhappiness.
In freeing Alex O’Connor on “It’s Not The Same Anymore,” Pony achieves a feat most artists strive for: The destruction of their persona. If music is about pursuing catharsis and honesty in equal turns, consider the close of Pony to be the pinnacle of that endeavor. Looping back to “10/10,” and running through the album once more, suddenly, there is fresh context to the flecks of darkness. We understand Rex better, as he understands himself better. The pressure’s gone now, and he might just be a 10.