Released Oct. 25, Rex Orange County’s newest album, “Pony,” contains all the qualities instantly recognizable to fans of Rex’s work: his complex layering of electronic sounds, his nearly idiosyncratic use of orchestral instrumentation, his emotional and unembellished vocals.
Despite similarities with his previous work, “Pony”s fluidity and comfortability with itself also demonstrate Rex’s notable growth over the past two years. The first of his three records to be released with Sony Music Entertainment, “Pony” is likewise Rex’s first album since the success of his breakout hit “Loving Is Easy” and his two features on Tyler, the Creator’s 2017 “Flower Boy.”
With more resources, the artist’s newest album purposefully strives to outdo his previous work. The no-longer independent 21-year-old Brit is done making music out of his bedroom. Still, he has yet to dispense with his deep roots in the genreless sound and sensibility of bedroom pop.
The album opener and debut single, “10/10,” is a lighthearted introduction and thesis statement for the rest of the record. Over a steady pop beat that almost forces you to nod your head, Rex sings matter-of-factly, “I had a year that nearly sent me off the edge/ I feel like a five, I can’t pretend/ But if I get my shit together this year/ Maybe I’ll be a 10.” The themes in these lyrics are characteristic of Rex’s earlier work: a consistent pursuit of happiness and an uncertainty about how to achieve it. The playful rhyming and danceability in this song, however, indicate a hope for the future less pronounced on previous albums.
On “Pony,” Rex actively tries to change as an artist and explores personal development. Still, he acknowledges how difficult it is to make this change. Just as the sound of the album reflects both his earlier music and new confident experimentation with style, the lyrics reflect Rex’s careful movement from the past into the future.
If we could place these songs into neat categories of evolution, “Stressed Out” would best represent the beginnings of Rex’s career, portraying his angst and his isolation. “They wanna see me stressed out every day, I know it,” he sings. “They wanna lie and still be friends/ … You didn’t know any better/ Doesn’t it feel unfair?” This song displays the same distrust of others and purposeful separation that Rex explored on his debut record, “Bcos U Will Never B Free.” Occurring at the halfway point on the album, the lyrics on “Stressed Out” highlight Rex’s relapse into familiar patterns, particularly in the face of his recent come-up.
In a second category, however, the song “Pluto Projector” may be the closest we get to a taste of Rex’s newer style. He hasn’t changed that much, and the structure of this song is relatively familiar; he begins quietly and plaintively, with only a guitar as accompaniment. Then, he adds the drums. Then, the chorus. For a moment, the song gets quiet, back to the single guitar. But then, strings reach a marvelous crescendo. Finally, the song concludes again with the guitar, now accompanying a solo electronically manipulated voice.
This medley of layered instruments and vocals was also present on Rex’s second album, “Apricot Princess.” Yet, in “Pluto Projector,” it has a particular strength that wasn’t there before. As Rex treads the familiar ground of his relationship with his girlfriend, the new precision of the lyrics that imagine their future together is uniquely striking. Raw and open, over the strings he cries, “I don’t think I’m meant to understand myself.” He doesn’t know what will happen next; he doesn’t know how he will create the future he imagines.
On “Pony,” Rex expertly crafts a narrative of change and attempts to break away from the patterns of his past. He tells a story about the difficulty of necessary maturation, and in doing so, shows how he has grown artistically since releasing his debut album just three years ago.
In an interview for “Pony,” Rex stated, “Going from … 18 to 21, it’s like you just learn a lot, I think.” While Rex has definitely learned a lot, these words — reflective of how a short span of time can feel so long in youth — likewise attest to the fact that there is still so much more to do and so much more to learn.
In the closing track of “Pony,” Rex repeats, “It’s not the same anymore.” In his growth, both he and his music have changed. And in this maturation, Rex has hope: “It’s not the same anymore/ It’s better/ It got better.”