By: Wylie Feaster
It starts with a cough —this album starts with a cough. It may not seem like much but, to any first-time listener, it’s a very real indicator of humanity, of sickness, of anxiety, all emanating from a boy from Grayshott, along the border of Hampshire and Surrey, England, with a way with words and an ear for jazz, hip-hop, soul, and bedroom electronica like no other. I came across Alexander O’Connor, better known by his stage name “Rex Orange County,” and his gorgeous voice during my first listen to Tyler, the Creator’s 2017 masterpiece Flower Boy, his vocals featured on the very first song “Foreword.” Immediately, I was hooked by his youthful sound and adolescent twinge and I quickly rushed to his Spotify profile to check out what else he had released. From there, songs like “Sunflower,” with a brilliantly warm music video to match, and “Best Friend,” which makes me cherish the love one person can share for another, played on a consistent loop in my head for weeks on end. But, it isn’t until now, sitting here at my desk during quarantine, that I am deciding to dive into one of Rex’s full-length albums, his debut album, Bcos U Will Never B Free. In hindsight, I don’t know why it has taken me this long. I
should have done this a lot sooner.
Interestingly enough, Bcos U Will Never B Free was a self-released project Rex created in his bedroom, sitting on the floor with nothing but a guitar, a keyboard, and some basic recording equipment. Take the first song “Rex (Intro)” for example, as it perfectly combines these three aspects into a brilliant opening track. As Rex clears his throat before putting his mouth closer to the mic, the smooth ebb and flow of a keyboard slips in just below his voice, as he sings, “How you been? / Have you told your mother about me? / I heard you’ve been away to discover yourself with something… / Did I mention that you’re still on my mind, still that lonely guy, low yet high, don’t know why.” Clearly, from the get-go, Rex is dealing with something, more importantly, dealing with someone. A situation that has not entirely been resolved, all clouded by one very powerful force: love. Already, I can tell this is going to be a very prevalent theme across the remainder of the album.
The next song, “Paradise,” must make use of that recording equipment Rex has because I can
hear two things right off the bat: a steady drum beat in the background and a xylophone. He sounds happier here, and funny enough, I think I have figured out why. This song is everything he wishes could happen between him and his significant other — his ultimate dream of a love-filled paradise. Throughout the track, he manages to create his own harmonization section and split his voice into a smattering of rich falsettos and falling countertenors, all while delivering the vocals using a style I can describe in no better way than “sing-talking.” As “Paradise” ends abruptly, the listener begins “Belly (Grass Stains),” a much more somber track, showing Rex in pursuit of the girl he loves, while at the same time questioning if “she was ever even [his].” There is an extremely subtle bass line in the background which, more or less, remains subdued by an ambient layer of synths, constantly popping up through the song’s four-and-a-half minute runtime.
Already, I’m in awe. By listening to just three songs off of Bcos, the range that Rex demonstrates is surreal. The songs shift from slow-paced to upbeat, and he successfully keeps the listener interested through authentic, metaphorical lyrics that evoke warm feelings of comfort and child-like nostalgia. Much of what I have listened to so far has the same sense of euphoria one feels when thinking back to their childhood, remembering all those silly things we did as kids that, now as adults, we no longer cherish. Yet, other parts capture an existential sadness, one that can’t be put into words, typical of our teenage years when we yearn for love that may not always be reciprocated. Pardon me for going out of order but, “A Song About Being Sad” tells of Rex’s experience placing a girl he loved on a pedestal only to find out that she wasn’t the person he thought she was. He details the expectations he had while with her, as well as the lessons he learned from falling out of love with her. He gets it. That’s why I love him so much. His lyricism, be it simplistic, is honest and extremely relatable. It’s clear that he was a lovestruck teenager once and, even now in his early twenties, it’s even more clear that he understood that phase of his life well. Like really, really well.
One of the music videos for the album, paired with the song, “Japan,” shows Rex sitting in a grassy outcrop while another person, most likely a friend, shaves his head. As he stares at the camera, he tells the story of losing a girl, likely the same one he has spent much of Bcos pursuing. He doesn’t seem angry, he doesn’t try to intimidate, and his body language feels welcoming. His silly expressions give him a youthful glow that feels so inviting and friendly. Scenes of him popping out from behind evergreen trees with a mischievous smirk across his face show his humor and kind spirit, both attributes of his that come directly across in the songs he sings. Personally, I am a huge Rex Orange County fan and cannot wait to see what other sunny ballads and personable admittances he will release in the future. Being a legal adult who still feels very much like a teenager, I am honored to have found a musical artist as understanding as Rex. I’ll say it again and again and again: he gets it — I’ll always love him for that.