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Tuesday, June 25, 2024
The Observer

Rex Orange County, ‘Pony’ at heart

Cristina Interiano | The Observer
Cristina Interiano | The Observer

Three albums, two collaborations with Tyler, the Creator and one record deal in, Rex Orange County has hit his stride in the music industry. But the 21-year-old is in no hurry to grow up. “Pony,” Rex’s third and latest album, sees the singer-songwriter reining himself in as he rounds the corner on adulthood, yearning for the lightheartedness of a pony as he bears the pressure of a thoroughbred.

Rex Orange County’s lyrics have often read like the diary entries of a teenager holed up in his bedroom, blinds shut. “I ain’t seen my friends in a minute,” he sings on Tyler, the Creator’s “Foreword,” “Guess that nothing lasts forever.” That spirit does not vanish on “Pony.” There is the paranoid “Stressed Out,” the willfully recluse “Laser Lights,” the self-explanatory “Never Had the Balls.” Yet, a shift is underway. “It seems I’m not invincible,” Rex reflects on “Always,” “But I’m bored of the pain.” That teenage woe which once felt all-consuming, here is contextualized and set aside. With some reluctance — “there will always be a part of me that’s holding on” — Rex opens himself to the idea of growth.

Between reluctance and growth, however, the former defines the production on “Pony.” Rex’s first two albums, both self-released, were economical, unpolished works. With his new RCA Records deal, Rex has the financial freedom to build out his production. On “Pony,” however, he chooses not to — for better and worse. On the catchy number “10/10,” Rex’s simple, synth beat is all the song needs. Throughout “Every Way,” on the other hand, his flat vocals drag across the song’s note-at-a-time piano passages.

In the flashes and flourishes that do scatter the album, Rex wears his inspirations on his sleeve. For “Stressed Out,” Rex borrows his pitched-down vocals from Frank Ocean’s “Nikes,” with light guitar strums that evoke Ocean’s “White Ferrari.” On “It’s Not the Same Anymore,” Rex’s baroque pop embellishments imitate those of Sufjan Stevens’ “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us.” Worked into songs that cling to youth, these derivative elements substantiate Rex’s aversion to independence.

A brief aside: yes, “Stressed Out” does it worse than Frank, but that doesn’t make “Stressed Out” bad. “White Ferrari” and “Siegfried” rip off The Beatles and Elliott Smith, who both did it better, but “Blonde” is still The Best Album of the 2010s. Now back to the review.

“Pony” is not a breakthrough album. In fact, for an album about growing up, “Pony” covers hardly any ground. “I’m still a boy inside my thoughts,” Rex sings on the penultimate track “Pluto Projector,” “Am I meant to understand my faults?” These are not the words of a precocious 21-year-old. But they are honest and, in all likelihood, a common sentiment. Cognizant he is coming of age but articulate of his reluctance to do so, Rex Orange County exhibits a firm grasp on the everyman.

Artist: Rex Orange County

Album: “Pony”

Label: RCA Records

Favorite Tracks: “10/10,” “Stressed Out,” “It’s Not The Same Anymore”

If you like: Clairo, Mac Demarco, Tyler, the Creator

Shamrocks: 3.5 out of 5