By Amy Miyahara
Two and a half years after his last album “Apricot Princess,” Alexander O’Connor, better known as Rex Orange County, is back to give listeners more of the sincere sound that so many have fallen in love with. Since releasing his first album on SoundCloud in 2016, O’Connor has developed a substantial following for his unique blend of indie-pop, electronica and R&B — and for his heartfelt, genuine lyrics. His vulnerability and introspection pay off in his latest album, “Pony,” a stunning story of growth and a perfect balance of honesty and optimism.
Since releasing “Apricot Princess,” O’Connor has produced the wildly successful single “Loving is Easy,” collaborated with Academy Award–winning film composer Randy Newman, and has been featured on rapper Tyler the Creator’s album “Flower Boy.” Yet, “Pony” shows that O’Connor’s journey since his last album has been anything but easy. Through lyrics such as, “I had a think about my oldest friends / Now, I no longer hang with them,” and, “I unplugged, then I dipped on my friends / My world got so much smaller this year,” O’Connor opens up about his feelings of isolation and his difficulty maintaining genuine friendships.
O’Connor is known for doing most of his producing, writing and recording himself, with the sole help of recording partner Ben Baptie. In an interview with ALT 98.7, O’Connor expressed his desire for “Pony” to sound “less amateur and less do-it-yourself” than his previous albums. He accomplishes this goal: with its clean transitions and emotive vocals, “Pony” surpasses the already-high bar set by his previous two albums.
O’Connor starts the album with “10/10,” establishing the album’s theme of searching for meaningful relationships. “10/10” is followed by “Always,” a soulful and honest take on O’Connor’s battle with mental health and struggle to admit to needing help. Transitioning to a jazzier tone, “Laser Lights” is backed by trumpet and woodwind dissonances mirroring the frustration expressed by lines such as, “And I’ll be caught up and confused about what matters to me / Still in the same position same time next week.”
O’Connor continues the vulnerability in “Face to Face,” which talks about the difficulty maintaining long-distance relationships by layering clever rhymes over a calming guitar sample that alternates between major and minor broken chords. Following “Face to Face,” “Stressed Out” closes the first half of the album with O’Connor calling out fake friends and confronting the resulting loneliness.
The birdlike chirps at the beginning of the album’s sixth track “Never Had The Balls” seem to mark the start of a new day, a fitting transition to the second half of the album. Laced with romance and optimism, the last five songs of “Pony” demonstrate a new level of self-acceptance and hope. O’Connor attributes much of this to his longtime lover, Thea Morgan-Murrel, who even sings a line in “Never Had The Balls.”
“Never Had The Balls” is followed by three more touching tributes to O’Connor’s love for Morgan-Murrel. Backed by ethereal violin lines and soothing guitar arpeggios, “Pluto Projector” acknowledges his lover’s ability to understand him better than even he understands himself. Simple and short, “Every Way” is distinguished by nostalgic piano accompaniment and contemplative pauses, as O’Connor thanks his partner for seeing him through his “darkest stage.” O’Connor then takes a more upbeat approach with “It Gets Better” as he shows more appreciation for his love with lines such as, “She changed the world I know / And it’s better for it.”
The final song, “It’s Not The Same Anymore,” rounds out the album beautifully. The six-minute track starts with O’Connor longing for simpler times. It concludes with O’Connor acknowledging how far he’s come in the final verse, which ends with him describing his current life: “It’s not the same anymore / It’s better.” It’s a touching summary of the album’s uphill narrative.
O’Connor is currently on tour and will be playing at the San Francisco Masonic Auditorium on Jan. 16, 2020, and the Fox Theater in Oakland on Jan. 17, 2020.
Contact Amy Miyahara at amymhara ‘at’ stanford.edu.