Pony was an eagerly anticipated album for the rapidly growing fanbase of Rex Orange County, a 21 year old, Surrey-born singer-songwriter, whose lyrics in the closing track, ‘it’s not the same as before, it’s better’, can happily be used to describe this record.
That we were not to expect simply more of the same with this artist became clear with the early release of the album’s debut single ‘10/10’ in September. A typically upbeat song accompanied by jokey lyrics, as we have come to expect from Rex Orange County, also introduced a new sound full of auto tune and heavy synth which he plays with at various moments in the album. If this unnerved some fans, who, witnessing his extraordinarily rapid rise to stardom, feared that the modest bedroom artist they had grown to love was a thing of the past, they should be reassured by the arrival of the album. Pony doubtlessly experiments with creative vocal and instrumental effects, but nevertheless maintains all the humble charm of ‘Apricot Princess’ and ‘Bcos U Will Never Be Free’.
If he showed us a glimpse of skin in his early albums, candidly confessing in ‘A Song About Being Sad’ (2016) that he ‘even started sitting down in the shower’, in Pony Alexander O’Connor strips down and lays himself bare. The romantic optimism of some of his most-loved hits, ‘Loving is Easy’ and ‘Sunflower’, for example, has given way to a heartrending honesty about dealing with mental health and a nostalgia for his youth. The album really centres around ‘Pluto Projector’, a slow and poignant ballad in which Rex questions the way we understand ourselves, experimenting with pitch-manipulated, echoey vocals that draw the song, like ‘Stressed Out’ and ‘Laser Lights’, towards the era of Frank Ocean’s Blonde. He also dedicates ‘Every Way’ and ‘It Gets Better’ to his long-term partner in a far more committed way than we have seen before, singing openly in ‘Face to Face’ about the pain of being apart from her, and isolating himself from his old friends.
This does not, however, make the album depressing, as the recurring message, which is lucidly titled in the penultimate track ‘It Gets Better’, is that he has moved out of the worst years and into a new era. In many ways Pony is a sort of cathartic project; without artist features or collaborations, it is an album written entirely by and for himself. The best thing about it, then, is the way he is able to express quite dark and unhappy thoughts so frankly and honestly, while effectively partnering these lyrics with positive-sounding melodies and harmonies so that the overall effect of the music is uplifting for the listener.
Rex Orange County sung in his 2019 single ‘New House’ that he had not been inspired since he was eighteen; Pony clearly demonstrates that a new phase has begun. It is creative, poignant and hopeful, and gives us much to expect from this young artist in the coming years.