As of January 2022, indie star Alex O’Connor—also known as Rex Orange County—had last released music almost three years prior. The album, “Pony,” received mixed reviews. It seemed that ever since his phenomenal contributions to Tyler, the Creator’s, 2017 “Flower Boy,” the singer carried with him certain expectations that did not seem to be met entirely or consistently enough. Critics didn’t question O’Connor’s singing ability, but rather his utilization of it in combination with lyrical content and production. His latest release, “WHO CARES,” is the album that fans have been waiting for all of this time. While not necessarily as flawless as his “Flower Boy” contributions, the album puts the singer’s cumulative talent and potential on full display.
“WHO CARES” is an album about, as its title suggests, embracing who you are and not feeling pressured to fit others’ expectations. It’s about celebrating one another and encouraging us to chase our dreams. We have the ability to make our lives what we want, and this message comes through in both instrumental and lyrical ways. Perhaps the most consistent productional aspect is the album’s use of grand, regal strings. The album’s opening track, “KEEP IT UP,” begins with a beautiful, bucolic measure of such instrumentation, which is recalled repeatedly throughout the track. Similarly, “AMAZING,” begins with an orchestral nature, with its strings being complimented with smooth drums and a gentle delicate guitar pattern, conjuring images of a high-society ball. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a note must be invaluable. Through his production alone, Rex Orange County conveys just the right amount of self-assurance and confidence, not needing to explicitly state his message verbally. The album’s emphasis on majestic production—with its over-the-top strings and triumphant horns—speaks volumes about how O’Connor presumably wishes for this record to be received. Why concern yourself with the opinion of others when you are doing just fine by your own standards?
Rex Orange County also features clear and poignant lyricism throughout the project. During the resplendent chorus of the declaratory “IF YOU WANT IT,” fittingly accompanied with horns, the singer croons, “If you want it/There’s no good reason not to love if you want it,” encouraging us to chase what we are after, and not get bogged down in thinking of all the reasons not to do something. On “KEEP IT UP,” Rex Orange County assures that “You no longer owe the strangers/It’s enough, it’s enough/Keep it up and go on.” Evident here, again, is the album’s insistence on confidence and conviction in your life. Pairing these inspiring words with the song’s delightfully airy and upbeat guitar plucks, O’Connor’s intended message is resoundingly clear. Finally, on “OPEN A WINDOW,” he decisively sings, “I might leave the people/tellin’ me what I should do/They want change, but you don’t ever.” As an experience that O’Connor knows well, given polarizing receptions of his last few albums, an ability to rise above the critics is crucial to self-improvement.
Of course, deep lyricism and quality production, while stalwarts of any great album, would be somewhat lost without a voice melodic and evocative enough to sing them properly. In this regard, Rex Orange County does, in large part, deliver. There are instances of a seeming clash between voice and production. Tyler’s feature seems a bit misplaced on “OPEN A WINDOW”and O’Connor makes his vocals exaggeratedly loud on the chorus of “SHOOT ME DOWN,” which feels almost too big for its own shoes. However, these few missteps aside, O’Connor delivers, and then some. His ability to simply make words and melodies not only come to life, but soar, is on full display. The way he draws out and manipulates words with ease, seemingly taking care that each syllable is executed correctly, is a sound to behold. The intro to “ONE IN A MILLION” is particularly memorable for this reason. Its opening lines, “My heart keeps driving me crazy/There’s nothing much I can do,” is an example of perfect melodizing. Additionally, choruses to songs like “WORTH IT” and the concluding track “WHO CARES” are done with similar standards of quality.
The time that Rex Orange County put into ensuring each track was worthy of release is abundantly clear, as is likewise evidenced by the record’s comparatively short track list—only 11 songs. In a music world that can seem oversaturated with money-grabbing tracks and made-for-radio hits, “WHO CARES” is a breath of fresh, reassuring air about not only its own quality and worth, but ours too.