The size of the venue might have increased several times over, but the outcome was the same: once again, it was a packed house of adoring fans for Rex Orange County. Playing to a sold-out crowd at The Anthem as opposed to the intimate confines of U Street Music Hall, the twelve-fold increase in attendance didn’t appear to faze Rex one bit – he worked through his entire catalog with confidence and humility.
Clearly, performances at major music festivals like Glastonbury and Flog Gnaw have ironed out any potential kinks over the past years. This was as polished of a performance as could be expected by an artist who has been in the limelight since he was a teenager. The increased resources at his disposal – a product of his ever-growing fame and notoriety – are put to good use, the support of a five-piece backing band (including a horn section) lend additional richness and weight to the live show. Although this music might be the product of a singularly talented mind, it’s evident that the songs come to life on the stage in a way that speaks to the hopeless romantic.
On the surface, Rex Orange County might seem like just another sweet, sensitive singer-songwriter – the latest in a long line of young men to combine a pleasant voice and an even nicer face with a knack for a melody – but there’s more to him than meets the eye, and he’s not exactly shy about pulling back the curtain and letting us catch a glimpse of the sharper corners of his personality.
The man born as Alexander O’Connor is extremely adept at melding bubblegum-pop production with biting lyrics; spend any length of time with his music and it’s easy to see why he’s become one of Tyler the Creator’s regular collaborators. Emotional heft is cleverly disguised by floating, sparkling choruses, and songs take unexpected and interesting turns that subvert conventional pop wisdom.
This degree of substance was clear from the very beginning of Wednesday’s show, with his performance of “10/10”. The song, which also doubles as the lead-off track from Pony (his latest album), addresses the challenges of growing up and distancing from childhood friends, while also giving yourself the necessary space for self-care and self-preservation. That he does all of this in under three minutes of auto-tuned vocals, springy synths and boom-bap drums – all imbued with major key warmth – is remarkable.
O’Connor is yet another graduate of the BRIT School and the bones of that musical education are visible throughout. Songs like “Pluto Projector”, “Best Friend” and “Loving Is Easy” convey more depth and nuance of emotion than you’d expect, and it clearly strikes a chord with his teenage audience. They sing along and cling onto his every word because he seems to be expressing the complex, conflicting emotions they’re feeling but maybe don’t have the words for.
There’s pain and empathy beneath the layers and layers of sweetness, and I think that’s what makes Rex Orange County’s music so appealing to so many young people. He’s able to hold and express multitudes within the same song, even if it’s all wrapped in a hazy, glowing warmth.