Rex Orange County is the indie pop artistic output of English 21-year-old Alexander O’Connor, whose popularity has grown exponentially since the release of his debut project “bcos u will never b free” on Soundcloud in 2016. O’Connor built an audience from his lo-fi production and down-to-earth songwriting, both of which are aided by his nonchalant, teenage vocals. Since then, the scope of his career has exploded, garnering higher and higher expectations for an artist who is just three years departed from making music in his bedroom. In 2019, with the release of his major label debut, those expectations reached terminal velocity- and his ability to fill those shoes has waxed and waned.
When taking inventory of the influences and catalysts that drove Rex Orange County to stardom, an invaluable factor to consider is the working relationship between himself and Tyler, the Creator. Tyler, who was at this point in his career a bit of a black sheep in the music industry, reached out to O’Connor to collaborate on his 2017 album “Flower Boy.” This album was a tonally seminal moment in Tyler’s discography, and for O’Connor, it proved to be a jumpstart to an already buzzing career — not to mention Tyler’s influence on the music of Rex Orange County.
The second Rex Orange County album, “Apricot Princess”, was released independently in April 2017, just a few months before Tyler’s “Flower Boy”, and the effect is evident. “Apricot Princess” takes the soft, heartfelt character of O’Connor’s earlier songwriting and gives it scale, adding a sense of grandeur at times and internal perspective at others. Moreover, the production values and recording quality is leagues above that of “bcos u will never b free,” elevating the artistry without dimming his authenticity. Both of these dynamic shifts are parallel to Tyler’s evolution going into “Flower Boy.”
The key to all of this is that Rex Orange County managed to transcend obscurity while maintaining the earthiness and honesty of the music that earned him a fanbase. Perhaps that is why the sterile, at times near-soulless “Pony,” released in October of 2019, feels somewhat peripheral and vapid. The cover art depicts O’Connor gazing into the distance, donning a white shirt against a blank background. As the tracks met my ears one-by-one, I came to the conclusion that such a featureless image was probably apt for an album that almost managed to strip the flavor from one of indie pop’s most accessible creatives.
From the very first song, “10/10,” we are met with 2000s era autotune and melodies that grind any grit or character from O’Connor’s vocals. Tragically, his core songwriting has not entirely lost its touch. Rather, it has been stifled by the questionably impotent pop flare prominent across the record. The more laidback “Always” falls just short of feeling organic, but is marred by subpar production. While spades of jazzy instrumentation are the saving grace of many tracks, obnoxious canned drum beats and GarageBand-esque synth-bass upheave the would-be successes of his gentle, melodic flow on “Never Had the Balls.” However, after this midpoint, the busy production settles back a bit. It allows the heart of O’Connor’s songwriting to become the focus on songs such as ‘Pluto Projector” and “It Gets Better.” Had he produced the entirety of the record with the same philosophy he appears to have had in its concluding tracks, the album as a whole would have benefited massively.
The problem that appears to be presenting itself is that Rex Orange County thrived in an insular environment. As a producer and artist, he benefited from the earthier and more forgiving standards inherent to the aesthetic of an obscure indie pop project. Now that his music has placed him on the world’s stage, his challenge is to match his talent for creating songs with enough soul to project through a studio microphone. This album, however, is a C.