In the realms of indie music, it can be difficult to ascertain how much an oncoming direction in sound and approach occurs solely because of artistic drive, and how much is down to certain amounts of pressure from looking to appease outside parties. It was the case with Twenty One Pilots’ Trench, an album that felt roadmapped in no small part to give an overzealous fanbase exactly what they wanted, but in the case of Alex O’Connor – otherwise known as Rex Orange County – the move feels even more blatant. He started out as another Mac DeMarco-adjacent indie sad-sack, but his biggest break came from being picked up by Tyler, The Creator to feature on his 2017 album Flower Boy, which subsequently prompted him to churn out a new album as quickly as possible to capitalise on his biggest surge of exposure to date. To be fair, there’s something rather admirable about making the most of an opportunistic streak like that, but with O’Connor currently sitting at his highest peak to date, and with new album Pony being his first for Sony, it’s not too much conjecture to suggest that those outside forces are going to have more than a small part in deciding where this album ends up.
And with that in mind, it feels rather fitting that Pony feels like an almost a perfect embodiment of how detrimental too many hands in the pot can be, especially when there’s no evidence of a cogent endgoal in sight. Here, the endeavours to mainstream-ify O’Connor’s sound are made plain, but when the intention of leaving as much of the homespun, intimate bedroom-pop aesthetic untouched is thrown in on top of that, it highlights how lacking in concentric qualities those two approaches are, and the whole thing ends up as a pretty meek and flavourless listen. As much as Pony hasn’t been drowned at birth by studio-mandated meddling (and that’s undoubtedly a good thing), its presence at all doesn’t help, and an underweight, anonymous final product doesn’t feel like the right way to have gone about this by a demonstrable degree.
It’s not even like most of this is irredeemable either, but even when Pony is rooted in potentially good ideas that can serve as a suitable conduit into a more mainstream space, rarely are they executed well enough for that effect to be felt. 10/10 really is the standout with its buzzy, warping synths and spry beat that continually morph into a pretty propulsive and likable indie-pop song, but otherwise, there’s not a lot that connects all that well when so much of this album feels reliant on arranged or synthesised instrumentation that, in itself, doesn’t work all that well. Sure, there are nice moments, like the trailing saxophone and whistles on Laser Lights that give it an almost cartoonish sense of cheekiness, or the more opulent builds on the closer It’s Not The Same Anymore that might take a while to get there, but ultimately does pay off. For the most part though, Pony tries to combine a grander vision with minimalism and smaller-scale worldviews, but rarely can it find a suitable median that allows the two to actually work together, rather than just clash in a pretty noticeable way. Stressed Out clearly wants to capture that vibe with its weedy organs and guitars, but the vocal manipulation and increasingly distracting production slathered over it doesn’t do a good job at all, while Never Had The Balls fittingly castrates any sort of potency the strings could have in favour of placing them behind an incessant squelching beat and tinny fragments of guitar. None of this actually sounds underproduced or homegrown like it’s going for, but rather mismanaged in a way where it’s abundantly clear that there’s something of a budget behind it, but has been put to use in a way that doesn’t flatter O’Connor as a singer, or these songs as compositions. Granted, a flat, boyish delivery across the entire album with barely any semblance of deeper emotional resonance isn’t doing him any favours, but putting it all together just sounds tired and boring in a way that, even through just a couple of listens, seems easy to fix.
Of course, not fixing it puts the onus on how intimate and ad-hoc this is all supposed to be still (when in reality, that’s not fooling anyone), but even just looking over at the lyrics reveals how deeply the retooling has gone, where there’s definitely fragments of personality and individual emotion here, but the majority comes paved over by relatability in the usual indie-pop fashion of ossifying any greater depth for widespread appeal. It’s why it makes sense to have 10/10 as both the big single and the opening track, as the triumphant self-esteem anthem that sets the bar for entry nice and low before it’s nudged up by only minor increments. And sure, it’s not like a focus on O’Connor’s fears of inadequacy or imposter syndrome on Always or admittedly sweet love songs like Pluto Projector and Every Way is bad, especially when there is some nicer lyrical imagery there, but in the same way the instrumentation has been drained of so much colour and personality, the writing only ever touches on those more human moments. Typically, Pony displays a lack of character that honestly isn’t all that surprising given that it’s a major label release, but it’s disappointing to see it stripped so bare of anything that gave O’Connor’s music even a hint of warmth in the past, now just an empty shell of an album with nothing to offer outside of brief, isolated moments.
It’s why, for as underwhelming as Pony ultimately is, it’s not like O’Connor can take the brunt of the blame here. Sure, being swept up by the homogeneous meat-grinder of the music industry can be avoided, but when there’s clearly been as much micromanaging at play here with with expected promise of a big payout to come at the end, it just feels mildly depressing. As it stands, Pony is a few steps from being good, but those few steps make all the difference, especially when so much individuality has been strip-mined in favour of sounding ready for primetime with all the soul taken out of it. Really, it’s hard to see even fans being satisfied by this one, an album that certainly exists and does that adequately, but struggles to move the needle one way or the other by any degree. It’s just consistently uninteresting, and that’s a shortcoming that’s not easy to escape.
For fans of: Clairo, half•alive, Wallows
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Pony’ by Rex Orange County is out now on Sony Music Entertainment.