It takes exactly 31 seconds from the start of his third album for Alex O’Connor to inform listeners that he’s feeling both stressed and “so depressed”. Those familiar with O’Connor’s oeuvre as Rex Orange County might suggest that’s very much par for the course. Feeling stressed and depressed is O’Connor’s thing. He’s stressed and depressed about girls, about his friendships, about his burgeoning musical career and, on a song called 7am, about forgetting to shut the blinds before he went to bed. He even has a weird habit of sounding upset when he’s ostensibly hymning a blossoming new romance, striking an oddly pleading tone: “I can’t believe you’ve come and saved me.”
Even by the standards of sensitive “sad boi” singer-songwriters – none of them exactly big on impenetrable imagery and extended metaphors – O’Connor writes about his feelings in a curiously direct and unadorned way. Set to simple piano accompaniments that are often noticeably perkier than their subject matter, his lyrics frequently resemble too-much-information social media posts arranged into rhyming couplets and verses. (“So you want to be happy too? / What are you supposed to do?” he sings on Who Cares?’s title track.) In his back catalogue lurks a song about feeling stressed out called Stressed Out. He also has a song about feeling timid called Never Had the Balls and a song about being sad called A Song About Being Sad. By contrast, Ed Sheeran looks like Mark E Smith.
This, one suspects, is the secret of Rex Orange County’s considerable success: his back catalogue is thick with singles that have gone gold or platinum without actually making the charts, a discombobulating phenomenon that indicates an awful lot of streams spread over a long period of time. As has been established thoroughly in recent years, what a lot of teen and tween listeners now want from pop is relatability, and they come no more relatable than O’Connor with his boy-next-door image, his unvarnished diary-entry lyrics and his frequent suggestions that stardom is all a bit much and he’d be happier living a more normal life: “I’m not cut out for this and I keep wanting to call it quits,” he sings on 7am. If you want an indication of the age group his music attracts, he’s about to release an expanded “anniversary” edition of his album Apricot Princess, celebrating not its 20th birthday, or even its 10th, but its fifth. Snort if you want at the idea of mistily recalling the halcyon era of 2017, but for a sizable chunk of his audience, five years ago probably does seem like the distant past – a time when the older ones were still studying for their GCSEs and the younger ones were still at primary school – and a simpler one at that.
Musically, there’s a hint of vintage soul music about his approach on Who Cares?: the squelchy synth bass on Open a Window could have stepped off an early 80s R&B hit. There is in the construction of Shoot Me Down a barely perceptible hint of Oasis in ballad mode, specifically Stop Crying Your Heart Out. But with his tasteful string arrangements, his electric piano and his mid-Atlantic accent – “I’m alone witchoo,” he cries, as people from Hampshire villages so often do – what O’Connor really recalls is the poppier end of 70s soft rock: Andrew Gold, Leo Sayer, Dean Friedman. For all the 2020s sheen, the samples and the guest appearance from Tyler, the Creator (O’Connor guested on his album Flower Boy in the halcyon era of 2017), it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to picture him singing most of Who Cares? on Top of the Pops, perched at a keyboard in a cheesecloth shirt, before an audience waiting patiently for Showaddywaddy to come on and liven things up.
Like his soft-rock forebears, at his best O’Connor seems to be part of a lineage of pop craftsmen for whom melody trumps everything – you don’t need edge, experimentation or lyrical fireworks if you can come up with a tune as strong as Open the Window or as cute as Making Time. But at his worst, it sounds limp and insubstantial, compounded by the thin production (a sonic link to the days when O’Connor was uploading his bedroom-recorded songs to Soundcloud) and his voice, which can tend to the nasal and whiny. The effect is often oddly flattening: “I kept opening my door just to see if you would walk through,” he sings on The Shade, sounding less like a man temporarily rendered irrational by love than someone waiting for a Deliveroo.
It’s music so redolent of the current appetite for safe pop, and of a specific audience, that you wonder what the future holds for O’Connor. Perhaps he’ll grow and develop alongside his fans. Perhaps he’ll come good on one of his many threats to pack it all in. Right now, though, he’s engaged in giving people exactly what they want. If success really makes him as unhappy as he keeps claiming it does, he’s clearly going to be stressed and depressed for the foreseeable future: more unvarnished grist to the songwriting mill.