‘Who Cares?’: I do, Rex Orange County, I do
Abigail Keaney | Thursday, March 17, 2022
Do you remember the sweet, sweet summer of 2017? When I look back on those days, they seem to be defined by the gentle voice of Alexander O’Connor, better known as Rex Orange County, singing his breakthrough hits “Best Friend,” “Television/So Far So Good” and “Loving Is Easy.” These singles were upbeat yet relaxed, optimistic but not idealistic. A couple of years later came “Pony,” an album I believe to be one of the greatest ever made. Case in point — the album’s lead single, “10/10,” has been my number one song on Spotify three years in a row. Overkill? Maybe, but I really like the song. So, you can imagine my excitement when O’Connor announced the release of his fourth studio album “WHO CARES?” in March.
“WHO CARES?” is a solid album. It’s sonically cohesive, it has meaningful lyrics and it’s classically Rex Orange County. Clocking in at a mere 11 songs, it’s not a hugely expansive body of work, but we still have time to get deep into O’Connor’s psyche. The album is largely an exploration into issues of insecurity and self-doubt as they relate to his new relationship, but it’s somewhat of a departure from the total pessimism of “Pony” and feels more like a return to his older work. Tracks like “Amazing” and “One in a Million” are reminiscent of 2017’s “Best Friend,” retaining the slow, sleepy veneer of O’Connor’s trademark style, this time accompanied by honest, relatable lyrics about love. This optimism is compounded in the album’s opening track, “Keep It Up,” a catchy, upbeat song about resilience in the face of self-doubt. It initially feels like O’Connor has done something akin to Lorde’s “Solar Power” — he has worked some stuff out and is feeling hopeful. It’s refreshing to hear a steadier, faster pace return to O’Connor’s music on songs like “The Shade,” and as he sings “It’s enough, it’s enough, keep it up and go on” in “Keep It Up” you’d be easily fooled into thinking this will be an album of self-compassion with some gooey love songs thrown in.
Alas, if you add “WHO CARES?” to your playlist hoping for a feel-good album, you’ll quickly be disappointed. The album’s arc is a somewhat depressing one, following a similar structure to “Pony.” Beginning with an optimistic, honest opening track before spiraling deeper into precarious self-doubt, O’Connor’s mental health once again takes center stage. By the time we reach the album’s eponymous and final track, it’s not a surprise to hear him lament “All the things I used to dream about / Got too far from reach / Now I don’t know what’s happened to me,” though it’s still a little heartbreaking. In that sense, “WHO CARES?” is very much a continuation of Rex Orange County’s existing body of work.
If the album has a low point, it might be “If You Want It.” The song feels overproduced and repetitive, lacking the heart of other tracks. It’s at this point, six songs in, that you start to wonder whether the whole album will sound the same. Don’t get me wrong, I like mellow bedroom pop as much as the next person, but you have to admit that “WHO CARES?” is a lot of the same thing in one sitting, and it often lacks the gut-wrenching lyricism we know O’Connor is capable of.
That being said, “WHO CARES?” is still worth a listen. If you’ve liked Rex Orange County’s music in the past, you’ll probably find a song or two that you’ll enjoy, and though the album is a little depressing, it never fully descends into hopelessness. In fact, as “WHO CARES?” comes to a close, O’Connor’s anxieties begin to subside, and it seems like things might be turning around. For his sake, I hope it stays that way.
Artist: Rex Orange County
Album: “WHO CARES?”
Favorite tracks: “Keep It Up”, “The Shade”, “7AM”
If you like: Mac DeMarco, Declan McKenna, Wallows
Shamrocks: 4 out of 5