Rex Orange County released his third album “Pony” as an exploration of mental health and a celebration of simple loves. The album’s cover parallels its contents: clean lines, a boyish attitude, and stark minimalism. “Pony” attempts to be joyfully pure in the midst of emotional tensions and depressions, but may find experienced listeners unconvinced of its trauma in light of albums like “Blonde,” “Assume Form,” or “Axis: Bold As Love,” whose creators set the standard for powerful albums exploring mental health. This album is fundamentally simplistic, aesthetically and thematically.
Rex’s first public attention was from a feature on Tyler the Creator’s album “Flower Boy,” which led to the quick release of his single “Sunflower,” directed by the creative group Illegal Civilization, who are friends of Tyler. Rex then released his album “Apricot Princess” shortly afterwards, maintaining his momentum in the public eye.
“Pony” is peppered with minimalist sections that are starkly met with the fullness of string movements, and on many tracks, notably “Face to Face,” “Stressed Out,” and “Pluto Projector,” seemingly Frank Ocean-inspired backing vocals are pitched up and reverbed, blending with and adding to the melody. Its styles function like a more straightforward Vampire Weekend, with less attention paid to unique rhythms.
There are a few moments of well-chosen instrumentation that may pleasantly surprise listeners, like the synthesizer on “It Gets Better,” whose drivenness is a successful addition to the otherwise airy context.
And on “It’s Not The Same Anymore,” Rex sticks to his homogenous recipe of strings and simple backing vocals, but develops the sound into a singularly powerful entity, composing a reminder to the listeners that the future can be pleasant, full of something new. The outro of “It’s Not The Same Anymore” is like a Pixar movie’s last scene, leaving the audience optimistic about a good ending that is also a new beginning for characters that have grown.
Rex clarifies the various parts of depression: toxic relationships, believing that depression will just dissolve with time, and doubt leading to a lack of idealism. But the depth of his exploration is lacking, and one can easily identify places where he could have made his observations more unique.
On “10/10,” for instance, Rex reflects about his feeling like a five, and how he aspires to become a well-loved 10. Yet he never assesses what being a ten means, and whether his goals to achieve that state are justified. Further, he completely ignores that his longing to be loved by this standard may be contributing to his mental health issues. This is the first of many messages that seem to be undermined by simple rhyme schemes.
What follows are sometimes cheap lyrical structures, filled with vague and overused expressions, like “It’s only four o’clock and still, it’s been a long day/ I just wanna hit the hay.” At the same time, there is the occasional inquisitive line, like in “It’s Not The Same Anymore,” where he describes his depression as a lack of appetite for life, saying “I used to be so hungry/ Right now, my stomach’s full.” In “Pluto Projector,” Rex identifies a possible source of his pervasive simplicity, saying “I’m still a boy inside my thoughts.”
Minimalism has its place in philosophical axioms and musical styles, but instead of it being the wise conclusion of a person with abnormal abilities to synthesize divergent and convoluted masses of information into a comprehensive solution, it can dangerously have the connotation of ignorance that is too lazy or not thorough enough in thought to come to a more nuanced belief. The controversy surrounding “Pony” is in deciding whether it should be celebrated as profoundly simple, or criticized for its slothful lack of complexity.