Since breaking into public consciousness with multiple features on Tyler, the Creator’s 2017 album “Flower Boy,” English singer/songwriter Rex Orange County has earned success and a passionate fan base through his blend of light alternative rock and bedroom pop.
But in the wake of a breakup with his long-time girlfriend and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Rex’s latest album “WHO CARES?” finds him focusing less on his positive external experiences and more on his internal struggles with mental health and self-doubt.
These lyrical themes are the highlight of the album, carrying momentum through occasional questionable detours and predictable moments with a newfound air of maturity and introspection.
Rex’s previous work with Tyler heavily influences the production across “WHO CARES?” The mix of live instrumentation and hip-hop beats are reminiscent of their collaborations, and mostly work here, though it occasionally leads to the album lacking its own personality.
The album’s strengths, both lyrically and musically, are established early with “KEEP IT UP,” a jaunty blend of bedroom pop and classical influences over which Rex details his various insecurities and fears while still finding some respite in the chorus.
The classy and engaging production mixed with the mantra of still trying even when everything feels hopeless makes for a great start to the album; catchy enough to grab attention and substantive enough to hold it.
Meanwhile, “OPEN A WINDOW” continues the narrative.
Rex finds himself wanting to escape from being trapped inside both mentally and physically — something many can likely relate to after two years of a pandemic. Sonically, the “Flower Boy” influences are even more pronounced, with chunky bass guitar and beautiful string swells that capture the feeling of relaxing in nature.
Tyler himself shows up here for the album’s only guest appearance with a verse that’s equal parts witty and personal, tying in nicely with Rex’s sentiments.
The third track, “WORTH IT,” is a more adventurous moment. The orchestral elements are pushed to the forefront for an extended intro before Rex’s vocals come in with a great drum beat and one of the best melodies of any song on the album.
Lyrically, the song is almost an inversion of “KEEP IT UP,” with the chorus acting as the pessimist in Rex’s head and the verse trying to dissuade these darker thoughts. It makes for an incredibly sensitive and passionate song, and ties in nicely with the appropriately-titled following cut "AMAZING."
Here, Rex seeks solace in a relationship, hoping the woman he’s singing about can help him work through the issues he’s described up to this point. Backed by a soundscape familiar to his older material but refined with some added strings, the song is a comforting ode to the people who see the best in their partners.
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It also kicks off a run of love-focused tracks, none of which really match “AMAZING.” While “ONE IN A MILLION” is catchy and has some good vocal runs, it’s easily the most lyrically generic Rex has been so far and feels redundant next to its predecessor.
Meanwhile, “IF YOU WANT IT” is an awkward take on the fuzzed-out R&B and funk Tyler mastered on his 2019 album “IGOR.” The song has some interesting ideas, like the processed vocals and driving groove, but the simple-to-a-fault chorus and lack of forward progression leave it as a head-scratcher in the tracklist.
Things pick back up on the following “7AM,” which brings the mental health angle back into focus atop a bed of piano and violin embellishments. Rex’s accounts of feeling too scared to try anything due to a fear of failure are poignant and relatable but do feel out-of-place after the previous two upbeat and positive songs.
“THE SHADE” is another relationship cut, this time focused on a former love as Rex relays his attempts to keep things going before they fall apart, but being unable to help this former partner. The gentle guitars and understated delivery help form a touching atmosphere of regret and sorrow.
Despite building up momentum again through the previous two songs, "MAKING TIME" drags the album back down as perhaps its least successful song. The short length, odd mixing and monotonous lyrics turn the track into a non-factor, leaving little impact in the grander scheme of “WHO CARES?”
Thankfully, the album ends on a high note with the final two songs.
“SHOOT ME DOWN” features the longest runtime and slowest tempo of any track, but remains engaging with subtle instrumental switch-ups and Rex’s passionate performance as he pleads for mercy in the face of an uncertain future.
The final song and title track wraps things up nicely, bringing back the upbeat drums and piano for the realization that societal pressures are often the cause of insecurities and mental anguish. This turns the question posed by the album’s title into a message of hope, as Rex implores the listener (and himself) to live life on their own terms and through their own desires.
“WHO CARES?” is a remarkably efficient album, seeing Rex touch upon many difficult issues in an approachable and understandable fashion in under 40 minutes. It may not be the most consistent or fully-formed, but it makes an admirable attempt regardless and positions Rex as an artist with the skill and thoughtfulness to continue refining his craft in future releases.