Album Review: Rex Orange County – WHO CARES?
a respectable exercise in producing music for his own satisfaction rather than that of others.
WHO CARES?, Rex Orange County’s fourth album (and first post-pandemic release) is an exercise in the hits and misses of nominative determinism. It doesn’t include anything groundbreakingly new, but there’s a clear vein of self-love and self-acceptance in his lyrics (away from the self-deprecation rife in his prior releases) so perhaps this album is a respectable exercise in producing music for his own satisfaction rather than that of others.
This is no more evident than in ‘KEEP IT UP’, both the first single released from the album, and its first track. An upbeat head bopper about perseverance and staying true to yourself, complete with crisp vocals, and his characteristic twinkly fairytale beats, Rex sings “keep it up and go on, you’re only holding’ out for what you want, you no longer owe the strangers, it’s enough, it’s enough”.
This is followed by ‘OPEN A WINDOW’, an unremarkable collaboration with long-time friend Tyler The Creator, which pairs a loose drumbeat with the orchestral sound that forms the lazy backbone of the album, and shows a lyrical disdain for those who tell Rex what to do, while Tyler takes a backseat with a chilled rap verse.
classic Rex-meets-girl story that permeates most of his songs meets a formulaically catchy sound
The third track is called ‘WORTH IT’, and ohhhhh boy it is. A wave of gorgeous, cinematic string music kicks into a solid bassline and showcases Rex’s ample vocal range, promising a glimmer of variety that the rest of the album fails to deliver on. In fact, the album lacks a through line overall — it was recorded in 12 days, and is imbued with a “that’ll do” feeling, like when you write an essay 12 hours before the deadline, rather than the 12 days you promised yourself you’d do it in.
In a complete flip of the track-naming script, ‘AMAZING’, the second single released from the album, is anything but. Listen to it (the intro especially) and tell me it doesn’t sound like a Poundland version of ‘Loving Is Easy’. The classic Rex-meets-girl story that permeates most of his songs meets a formulaically catchy sound, void of the lyrical slamdunks that made earlier belters like ‘Television/So Far So Good’ and ‘Best Friend’ so great.
The sentimental piano serenade ‘ONE IN A MILLION’ is nothing special, but it’s a heck of an ear worm, though its tender sound is dulled by ‘IF YOU WANT IT’, the charmless and repetitive dance track that follows. ‘7AM’ and ‘THE SHADE’ see the anxious storytelling that’s become Rex’s bread and butter (the latter using a grungier sound that works surprisingly well), with classic warbles on adult life, independence and relationships providing a sobering reminder that despite his immense success, he’s still only 23.
The dreamy, waltzing interlude ‘MAKING TIME’ provides a breather before the penultimate song, ‘SHOOT ME DOWN’, which sounds like the closest we’ll get to a Rex Orange County Bond theme, with simple rhymes, vocal runs, and tension-raising strings cementing its status as probably the deepest song on the record.
The album closes with its title track, and it seems like Rex is reminding us not to take any kind of message he made in the album too seriously, because after all, WHO CARES? The opening lyric “first time I tried this I was free of doubt”, indicates that Rex, like most of us, used the bizarre limbo of lockdowns for some self-reflection, and has suffered through a slight crisis of confidence, though the fact that he’s successfully come out the other side is manifested in the carefree sound of the track. Of course, it’s tricky for anyone with such a strong back catalogue to keep raising the quality of their work without occasionally having a dip.
If you prefer the Pony-era Rex Orange County sound to his earlier albums, you’ll like WHO CARES?. I can’t deny the positives; it remains layered in terms of composition, and suits his vocal style. There are a few catchy tunes, but ultimately it misses the dynamic drive and uniquely poetic ordinariness that gave his previous work its shine. Rex Orange County is a major modern talent, and I can imagine him being a household name in indie music for decades to come, but I think this will be his forgotten album, with these tracks filling the fewest slots on his eventual Greatest Hits lists.
Favourite Tracks: ONE IN A MILLION, WORTH IT
Least Favourite Track: IF YOU WANT IT