Close, but no Pony
Sarah Taylor
11:59 10th March 2022

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There’s something about Rex Orange County that makes him so endearing. He has a penchant for producing airy and amiable love songs; there’s a universality in his lyrics; though drawing on personal experience, he is able to articulate what people want to tell their significant other and want to be told by their significant other.

Alex O’Connor shot to fame following his appearances on two tracks of Tyler, the Creator’s universally acclaimed fourth LP Flower Boy in 2017. This coincided with the release of his breakthrough studio debut Apricot Princess, the follow-up to his 2015 mixtape Bcos u will never be free. Both projects garnered O’Connor crowds of adoring Golf Le Fleur-clad fans. But it was 2019’s Pony that really cemented his star status, so naturally expectations for WHO CARES? are high.

‘Keep It Up’ is an expectedly effervescent opener, beaming with its titular refrain—a sort of motivational message to fans and a mental note to himself—and its sweeping string arrangement. In fact, strings play a huge role throughout the album’s instrumentation, more so than any other previous Rex project.

‘Open a Window’ sees Rex reunited with Tyler, the Creator, who returns the favour and imbues the track with his signature simmering synth sound and an expertly woven verse. It is refreshing to hear another voice too, as O’Connor rarely collaborates. But as with his previous efforts, Rex’s fusion of bedroom pop, indie rock and jazz remains.

Listening to Rex Orange County can feel a little bit like you’ve stumbled across a diary entry, or at times a love letter. O’Connor is unashamedly vulnerable in his lyricism, never afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. Even his vocal delivery has the tendency to feel spontaneous, like a sudden outpouring of thoughts and emotions. His voice wavers sometimes, with an underlying sense of yearning. On the hazy ‘If You Want It’, he sings “Let me open up.”

WHO CARES? can, however, feel a little over-produced and lacks the rawness of Apricot Princess or Pony. At times the string arrangements seem indulgent and unnecessary when it comes to amping up the emotion. O’Connor is at his best with minimal instrumentation: tracks like ‘One in a Million’ with its delicate piano melody and subtle synths enable his most powerful instrument—his voice—to shine.

The record meanders a little in the middle, with ‘7AM’—a sort of self-improvement anthem underscored by an incessant piano—feeling a little like a slightly juvenile attempt to convince an ex he has changed. Meanwhile, ‘The Shade’ is a groovy number let down by its clichéd lyricism and the fact that it sounds all too similar to his 2017 breakthrough hit ‘Loving is Easy.’

The album’s final tracks mark a change in tempo to slower solemn ballads in ‘Making Time’ and ‘Shoot Me Down’, both of which happen to be highlights. The former is a sleepy waltz soaked in nostalgia while the latter is despondent (“I feel the rain upon my face again”) yet hopeful (“I’ll stick around”). This a track where the production works; the instrumentation builds to a climax before offering some release in elegant piano tones, as Rex dwells on the shortcomings of fame.

WHO CARES? manages to end on a high note, with its closing titular track lifting the mood and tempo again. It’s a buoyant blend of hip-hop beats and vocal harmonies, allowing O’Connor to express his gratitude for the way his life has turned out. It is simple but effective, and it serves as a reminder as to why listeners fell in love with Rex Orange County in the first place.

WHO CARES? arrives 11 March via Sony.

Grab your copy of the Gigwise print magazine here.

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Photo: Press