Rex Orange County, the pseudonym for the British recording artist Alexander O’Connor, is perhaps one of the music world’s most famous sad boys. His music is fresh and charming. It makes hoards of vapid, young girls at Coachella flock to the twenty-one year old musician who perfectly epitomizes the label “introvert.” O’Connor is one of the few people putting out music today who remains stalwart in his conviction to only publish music that is unwaveringly him. This past Friday, Rex Orange County delivered his much-anticipated third album Pony, an inexplicably cheerful-sounding album about his tumultuous journey with mental health.
The album is so genuine, so honest that it becomes impossible to not feel for O’Connor in a very real way. If you were to listen to the album straight through without reading the lyrics, you would be dancing around to the upbeat, synth bops O’Connor created. However, everything changes when you take a look at the lyrics and realize how deceptive the Gen Z melodies are in comparison to the cumulative meaning of the tracks. His songs cut deep, and they make no attempt to Instagram-filter out O’Connor’s battles with mental health. It’s refreshing.
The album opens with “10/10,” an uptempo ballad about accepting the fact that you’re not okay, ditching the toxicity in your life and looking towards the future to the day you’ll one day be at a ten out of ten, instead of a five. The song is genius. Not only does it make attempts to destigmatize the act of admitting mental health problems, but it also tactfully unravels the social need to appear put-together at every turn. O’Connor sings “I feel like a five, I can’t pretend but if I get my shit together this year maybe I’ll be a ten.” He continues by saying that, despite the low-times, he ought to “give [him]self a little credit since [he] dealt with all the pain.” Given that the demography of Rex Orange County’s listeners is predominantly young, this message is so important: small victories matter, nothing will be solved in a day. The song concludes on a happier note. O’Connor comes out on top in his battle with his mental health: “But this time I took control and turned my shit around… Now I’m safe and sound where I belong and it took all my strength to carry on….” There is no sugar-coating it, O’Connor gives a frank depiction of overcoming hard times in his past. The path to recovery is rarely ever smooth, and “10/10” beautifully captures that reality.
The next song, “Always,” continues the message of “10/10.” The song addresses feelings of denial when it comes to needing help in one’s life when things get difficult. O’Connor sings “it took a while to see that I was in need of help from somebody else.” O’Connor avoids parsing words and making this a trendy song about anxiety or depression. Instead, he admits that he was disappointed in himself for feeling the way he did, and that getting help and taking time for self-care has made a significant difference. The song serves as a necessary echo to “10/10” in that it allows his audience to comprehend the lack of glamor in bouts with mental health. Too many agents of modern media romanticize anxiety and depression in such a way that presents them as chic. This song humanizes the healing process and accurately characterizes the difficulty of admitting the need for help.
The deep tracks on Pony are just as good as the singles. The song “Every Way,” is a short piano ballad in dedication to the person to whom O’Connor attributes his recovery. Against a warm, melancholy piano melody, O’Connor thanks the song’s subject for being there through his “darkest stage,” and apologizes “for the strain” he may have caused on their relationship. The last two lines of the song paint O’Connor in the most vulnerable light: “I cry in-front of you and it’s very necessary babe. I care about you in every way I can.” These last few words let people know that being emotional, sad or vulnerable is okay. If you are going through a rough patch and are unable to reciprocate the love and affection the people around you are providing to you, reciprocating in whatever way you can is enough. To care about someone in every way you can means doing your best. There is no need to be the perfect girlfriend or boyfriend. Some days it’s hard to love yourself, let alone someone else. Rex Orange County makes this clear.
The final song on Pony concludes the album on a candid note. “It’s Not the Same Anymore” delineates O’Connor’s journey to get help and it explains that despite all the high-energy, optimistic songs on the album, O’Connor will never be the same as a result of his personal and professional journey. He admits that getting help is not simple: “I wish I didn’t need to get help but I do.” Things get difficult and life relentlessly marches on, but despite the continued hardship, O’Connor admits that getting help at his lowest point made it easier to repair himself when things again became dim. At the end of the day, O’Connor makes it clear that “It’s up to me, no one else I’m doing this for myself.” This message is timely, poignant and absolutely necessary for anyone who comes in contact with Rex Orange County’s music.
Pony is a rare album that addresses a stigmatized issue in a clear and sincere way. No preaching occurs, O’Connor never suggests his listeners follow in his footsteps. Rather, he utilizes the allegory of his mental health journey in Pony in such a way that will help listeners, who may be dealing with mental health problems, to employ the tactic of seeking help when it is needed and to not shy away from the prospect.
Madeline Rutowski is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at [email protected].