On Rex Orange County’s 2020 live album, Live at Radio City Music Hall, the star of the show may as well be the 6000-strong New York City audience. Rex Orange County—the stage name of 23-year-old London musician Alex O’Connor—begins the show with “10/10”, the opening track from the artist’s major label debut, Pony. The album was released just four months prior to the Radio City recording, but the audience asserts absolute ownership of “10/10”.
“10/10” is not the happiest song in O’Connor’s repertoire: “I had a year that nearly sent me off the edge,” O’Connor sings in the opening verse. But happy or sad, confused or resolute, the ROC fanbase has a habit of embracing every word O’Connor sings.
Rex Orange County will release WHO CARES?, the official follow-up to Pony, this Friday 11th March. O’Connor created the album in Amsterdam alongside Dutch musician, Tim van Berkestijn, better known as Benny Sings. O’Connor and van Berkestijn began the sessions in late 2020, after Covid scuppered Rex Orange County’s European and Australian tour plans. But despite the circumstances, the spectre of a career-damaging global pandemic is absent from the record’s glass-half-full lead single, “KEEP IT UP”.
Since his earliest releases more than half a decade ago, O’Connor has tended to lay himself bare on his recordings. His is an earnest form of expression, which seems founded in a genuine desire to grow. “If you’re ever unhappy / Then maybe, baby, I must let you go,” he sang on “Corduroy Dreams”, a fan-favourite single from 2015, which happens to be the first song O’Connor ever wrote.
O’Connor’s preference for plain-faced sincerity means his lyrics could easily skew cheesy. But, as demonstrated by lines such as “I need insurance on my emotions / I can’t get hurt again,” (from 2017’s “Television / So Far So Good”) and “I’m still a boy inside my thoughts / Am I meant to understand my faults?” (from 2019’s “Pluto Projector”) O’Connor’s work is suffused with enough idiosyncrasies to eclipse the cliches of teen poetry.
“KEEP IT UP” is another example of O’Connor’s lyrical nous. “Every time I open my mouth / I have regrets in my mind,” goes the song’s opening line. This sentiment could easily be a reflection on O’Connor’s body of work—not because it warrants regret, but rather, because of the degree to which the British wunderkind has ventured to expose himself.
On “KEEP IT UP”, O’Connor grapples with the presumed judgement of others. We’re always self-policing out of fear that someone, somewhere, will disapprove, he suggests. As a result, we get trapped between doing what we want to do and what we feel is expected of us. This dilemma—of toeing the line versus exercising agency—calls to mind an unofficial songwriting dictum, which states that if your lyrics don’t make you feel uncomfortable or awkward, then you’re not saying anything constructive or novel.
As “KEEP IT UP” progresses, O’Connor assimilates himself with this principle. “I never give myself respect,” he sings in the second verse. “Most my life I’m asking why.” In the chorus, O’Connor gives the finger to paranoia, replacing it with a heartfelt vote of confidence.
“Keep it up and go on / You’re only holding out for what you want,” he sings. “You no longer owe the strangers / It’s enough, it’s enough.”
Live at Radio City Music Hall was released in conjunction with the mini documentary, Funny How Things Go From One Thing To Another. The film captures the experiences of O’Connor and his five band members—the majority of whom have been with him since the start—as they play to sold out audiences around the UK and North America following the release of Pony. Towards the end of the film, O’Connor calls it his “favourite tour that I’ve done,” which is largely down to the profound connection he has with his fans.
To be clear, Rex Orange County has experienced phenomenal commercial success in his short career to date. In Australia alone, he’s had one single go Gold (“Pluto Projector”) and one double Platinum (“Loving Is Easy”). Pony debuted at number four in the ARIA Top 50 and Rex Orange County’s 2020 Australian tour was on track to be a sell-out before Covid came along.
But statistics can only tell you so much. The fan interactions displayed in Funny How Things Go From One Thing To Another reveal that O’Connor’s songwriting and unassuming personality cut way deep. He describes his perfect live show as one that feels “inclusive and familiar” and “like something universal.” This description pretty much sums up Rex Orange County’s appeal in general—and like Pony before it, WHO CARES? is a work of warts and all honesty that vibrates with empathy.
Australian audiences will get to soak up O’Connor’s trademark sincerity this September when Rex Orange County returns for a national tour that includes the artist’s biggest Australian headline shows to date.
REX ORANGE COUNTY TOUR DATES
Thu 08 Sep 2022
Hordern Pavilion, Sydney
Sat 10 Sep 2022
Mon 12 Sep 2022
Entertainment Centre Theatre, Adelaide
Wed 14 Sep 2022
Margaret Court Arena, Melbourne
Sat 17 Sep 2022
Belvoir Amphitheatre, Perth