Rex Orange County, Pony (Sony Music)
4 out of 5 stars
Part of indie pop music’s allure is its simultaneous contraflow and debt to the mainstream. It nurtures a spirit of rebellion — like most subgenres — with which its artists strive to render a pop appeal without commercial compromise.
It also answers an awkward question: what do our most salable balladeers, DJs, and rappers sound like when not bound by the strictures of radio standards?
21-year-old singer Rex Orange County (born Alexander O’Connor) has been enlisting hip-hop and jazz stylings for his alternative approach to pop since his 2016 debut album, Bcos U Will Never B Free. Atop a woozy progression of major seventh chords, usually played on electric keys or guitar, he raps and croons about the high drama of young adulthood, which about sums up his lyrical latitude.
Indeed, he sings about little else than the experiences of a 17-21-year-old male, but teen art sometimes has a way of saying more about life changes than any other source, and with his new album, Pony, O’Connor updates listeners on what’s been going on with him.
As his major label debut on Sony, the LP contains catchier hooks than his sophomore effort, 2017’s Apricot Princess. That release was largely made up of jazz-tinged soft rock and RnB pop ballads that amounted to, frankly, little more than a cycle of easy listening grooves that might get your head bobbing if you invest more interest than you naturally would. That is to say, Pony, which O’Connor co-produced, is more melodic overall.
In its bouncy opener, “10/10,” the singer looks hopefully toward the new year after one “that nearly sent me off the edge,” singing cheerfully over flashy synth pads and spare electronic percussion about being a “ten,” presumably when it comes to managing out the bad and focusing on the good (one tag before the hook is “sometimes you gotta’ cut a bitch out”).
Later, in “It Gets Better,” he disallows his past perspectives with lines which hit home for anyone going through a transition: “didn’t understand it until the age of eighteen / yeah, even then I was blind / 2012, I remember being in need / true, 2015, you were fallin’ for me.” Throughout the album, he’s eloquent when recounting past struggles and resolutions; endings and beginnings; tensions and releases.
His unique pop prosody and production skills, more sophisticated than ever in Pony, foretell that his sound will continue progressing to new creative heights, with the heft of catchy pop music and the inventiveness of its growing indie subgenre.