Rex Orange County's 'WHO CARES?': Loving Isn’t Easy, but Give It Some Time
By Sydney Worrell
WHO CARES? That’s my response after listening to the new album by Alex O’Connor, known professionally as Rex Orange County. Following the release of his much anticipated fourth studio album on March 11, which was made in collaboration with musician Benny Sings, the general reaction from Rex Orange County fans has been disappointment. With heightened expectations and an already stellar discography, excitement for WHO CARES? was palpable; but ultimately, the release was anticlimactic and unsatisfying. Though a fun listen, the new album lacks the substance that has made his older projects so admired.
At his best, Rex is lauded for creating uniquely creative compositions that marry animated, inventive instrumentals with thoughtful and moving lyrics (and the occasional unconventional rap verse). His earlier work perfectly mingles his sonic playfulness with serious and impassioned lyricism, a feat that the new album attempts yet falls short of. Hold WHO CARES? up to albums like Apricot Princess and all you will see is the hollow shell of a Rex Orange County project. The tracks reflect his style and feature his voice, but lack the deeper creative substance that comprises the soul of his usual work. What listeners take away from the album is that it is fun and uplifting, but not much else. With its funky beats and catchy lyrics, WHO CARES? appeals to the masses, the charts (...theoretically), and the execs.
Perhaps the album’s most redeeming aspect is its theme of self love. To thoughts of self depreciation and fears about what others think, Rex Orange County has one thing to say—take a guess. WHO CARES? really is Selena Gomez “Who Says” for the next generation. More than just an excessively sugared self-help guide, the album alternates motivational messages with tracks that illuminate that he is speaking to himself through the lyrics more than his audience. Lines like those from “7 AM,” in which the artist sings “I’m no good at this, I’m fuckin’ up / I got used to failin’ but I’m not dumb,” communicate his struggle with self doubt, while “OPEN A WINDOW” suggests his stress over expectations: “Fuck this, I might leave the people tellin’ me / What I should do / They want change, but you don’t ever / Oh, tryin’ to ignore the thought of wanting to.” The artist responds to these songs, however, with “WORTH IT,” “KEEP IT UP,” and other optimistic tracks that preach self-acceptance and self-love, flaws and all.
Although these positive takeaways are admirable and well-communicated, it is somewhat responsible for exacerbating the album’s poor reception. As Rex’s first release since the breakup with his girlfriend of two years, fans counted on this album to be the new heartbreak soundtrack of 2022. Acknowledgements of the powerful love songs from his earlier albums, such as “Happiness,” “Corduroy Dreams,” and “Pluto Projector,” and his history of emotionally inspired songwriting, fueled this unfulfilled anticipation. Breaking expectations, WHO CARES? makes no mention of lost relationships and is not particularly a tearjerker, much to the discontent of Rex Orange County fans… who of course are thankful that the artist is in a good mental state!
While the mundanity of WHO CARES? was signaled by the earlier releases of unremarkable single “KEEP IT UP” and the slightly more remarkable “AMAZING,” the album was welcomed with open arms, but fell short of expectations upon first listen. Even a feature by artist Tyler the Creator—whom Rex has had fantastic collaborations with in the past––proved useless in reviving the lifeless album.
Thankfully, stand out tracks like “THE SHADE” and “7 AM” comfort fans by reassuring that Rex hasn’t lost his talent; he has just fallen into the rut of industry-encouraged mediocrity. In other good news, while the averageness of some tracks persist—and a few remain unlistenable (...“IF YOU WANT IT”)—many of the songs on the album seem to improve with each listen. Ultimately, WHO CARES? is a flawed album that revels in its surface level composition and leaves fans initially underwhelmed, acting exactly as was intended—proving upbeat and catchy enough to entice even the most critical Georgetown INDY writer to return for a second listen (and a third and a fourth and a fifth).
Sydney Worrell is a freshman in the SFS studying Culture and Politics. She went through the five stages of grief while in the process of writing this review.