Our Take: 3/5 Stars
Alexander James O’Connor, the man behind indie sweetheart Rex Orange County, concluded his 2020 run of “The Pony World Tour” at Atlanta’s Tabernacle venue in February of 2020.
With the pandemic canceling the Asian, Australian and New Zealand legs of the tour, O’Connor was able to sit down and work on his newest album release “WHO CARES?” over the next two years.
While lingering on the outskirts of the alternative scene since the release of his freshman album “Bcos U Will Never B Free,” Rex Orange County gained momentum after being tapped to feature on Tyler, the Creator’s 2017 Grammy-nominated album “Flower Boy.”
O’Connor’s popularity reached a new height after his songs “Best Friend” and “Loving Is Easy” littered the For You Page’s of TikTok users for months during the summer of 2019; earning him a dedicated fanbase as users sifted through his discography to find even more hidden gems such as the heartbreaking track “Untitled” off of his 2017 album “Apricot Princess.”
With the eleven song album running just under thirty-five minutes, the fourth album from the English singer-songwriter is a short and sweet addition to his existing trio.
Despite the short run time, “WHO CARES?” packs some tremendous high point singles between some predictable tracks that fall victim to O’Connor’s tendency to oversimplify his instrumentals in favor of attempting to convey the seemingly perpetual melancholy of his life.
Prior to release, fans speculated that parts of the album would be influenced by Rex Orange County’s breakup with fellow musician Thea Morgan-Murrell, who goes by Thea on stage. With Thea’s nickname “Apricot Princess” serving as the title for O’Connor’s aforementioned sophomore album, their relationship has been cited as a source of inspiration for Rex Orange County before.
Perhaps inspired by the breakup, “WHO CARES?” is filled to the brim with existential dread as Rex Orange County vaguely describes a loss that leaves him questioning who he is anymore.
The album’s title song cements this nearly nihilistic theme with the first verse stating “all the things I used to dream about/got too far from reach/now I don’t know what’s happened to me.”
This lost dream O’Connor speaks about is a prominent subject that remains pervasive throughout the album, with the song “ONE IN A MILLION” claiming that it is “the only thing I need/it’s the most important thing/it’s my one and only wish.”
It is clear that Rex Orange County is missing something that has made him lose his way, and that feeling translates to the production of the album itself.
The album brings some new sounds into O’Connor’s artillery, with “SHOOT ME DOWN” introducing a heavy dramatic drum beat that heavily contrasts with the cheery 50’s stratocaster strums that became a defining characteristic of his most popular singles. Rex Orange County also makes frequent use of an army of strings, adding a layer to the overall dramatic, woebegone bedroom pop feel of the album.
Absent from the album and sorely missed are moments where Rex Orange County shows off his British accent by talk-rapping a verse or two, a feature prominent on one of his most popular songs “Television / So Far So Good.” The inclusion of his speaking voice may have helped break up the flow of the album, adding some much needed distinguishable elements between the songs that start to blend together after a while.
Despite the escapist lyrics of the album insinuating a crisis in O’Connor’s life, he still managed to slip in some upbeat bangers in the album that distract listeners from his lack of life direction.
The album’s high note is “OPEN A WINDOW,” a song that heavily benefits from the neo-soul sound contributed by Tyler, the Creator’s verse.
“WHO CARES?” sends a flare signal that Rex Orange County is clearly working through a period of uncertainty in his life. Luckily, the title track and finale of the album offers listeners some assurance after Rex Orange County claims that he knows what he is supposed to do now that he knows who cares about him.
After straying away from what works for him and clearing his system with this album, O’Connor can hopefully leave behind the self-doubt soon in hopes of one day producing an album that will promote him from angsty sad boy to a full-fledged indie artist.