Sometimes it’s hard to believe that Rex Orange County is only 21 years old — he’s been singing so maturely on the strength of his love since he was barely 18. In the three short years since the stellar bcos u will never b free, Rex has become indie pop’s darling, stealing listeners’ hearts with his impassioned (and catchy) songwriting. A lot has happened in those three years. 18 is a crazy age to rocket into stardom, and once you’ve become a star, there’s no going back. Rex hasn’t shied away from singing about that pressure. But as the saying goes, pressure makes diamonds — and Pony is a diamond.
There’s one solemn theme that drives the writing on Pony: Rex missing his old life. It’s a message that runs deep throughout the album, maybe even deeper than his usual warm expressions of love for his girlfriend. Opener “10/10” and closer “It’s Not The Same Anymore” are the biggest meditations on this theme, and it’s probably no coincidence that he chose the two to sandwich the rest of the album. Rex’s voice is infused with melancholy as he sings, “I lost the joy in my face / My life was simple before.”
Love may be a universal language, but Rex is even more relatable in the ways he tackles nostalgia. His longing for the days of old feels even more personal, more intimate, yet so wide-reaching. The intimacy of his writing is reinforced by warm instrumentation. On “10/10,” the synth keys, snappy percussion and lush vocal harmonies give a veneer of ’80s energy while still sounding fresh. Pony’s production is all the more impressive when you look at the credits: Rex is a known multi-instrument virtuoso, and almost all the central instruments are self-performed.
Creating a musical mood is an art for Rex, using every sound to its fullest. “Laser Lights” is tinged with noir, featuring groovy saxophone and flute performances. The lyrics embody Rex’s songwriting style that is best described as “effortless.” His lines all have an innate rhythm, and he never has to stretch his delivery to say what he wants to say. He accomplishes this with lines that are at once simple and clever: “Arm to the face, when we have to speak I usually shoegaze / And if I saw you in public, I would pretend to tie my shoelace.”
Much like the innate rhythm in his writing, the tracks on Pony are expertly composed to build momentum, every song continuously expanding into something greater and greater. “It Gets Better” is a song that literally gets better as the instrumentation builds and builds. Starting with highly danceable percussion and piano chords, the song eventually explodes into an orchestral climax. There’s only one lengthy song on Pony at six minutes and 26 seconds, but Rex is poised to make magnificent and evolving music in the vein of Frank Ocean’s ten-minute masterpiece “Pyramids.”
Woven between the mellow writing on Pony is high-spirited celebration. “Never Had The Balls” is full of warmth and happiness. The sound of birds chirping pads the music, conjuring an image of a beautiful spring day. It feels like the sun shining down when the hook hits — if someone asked for an example of a chorus that blossoms, I would point them to “Never Had The Balls.”
The emotional high point of Pony is undoubtedly “Pluto Projector” — after first listen, it immediately made it onto my shortlist of songs to play at my wedding. It is laced in drama, starting with just a soft guitar and eventually introducing a sublime chamber orchestra. The angelic background vocals are even performed together by Rex and his girlfriend. Could it be any more romantic?
Pony is Rex in his element. For being so strongly tied to Rex in the present, the record’s songwriting is timeless. The song structures are familiar to pop listeners, but the ever-evolving nature of each track makes it feel more free-form. A sense of meticulous craftwork is in the bones of the music, making Pony a refined record for listeners of soft and delicate e-boy indie. Rex Orange County is quickly moving from indie-pop prince to king, and the crown looks damn good on him.