The Brit indie soulster Rex Orange County (aka Alex O’Connor) might be pop’s biggest cult star. Now he’s back with his fourth album, WHO CARES?. And, despite the crossover triumph of 2019’s major label premiere Pony, Rex hasn’t changed artistically or strategically. WHO CARES? is as singular and droll as ever. Notably, it hasn’t even been hyped, garnering minimal press in the lead-up.
Possessing a bristly voice, Rex has developed his own mode of ‘alternative’ for the digital age – straddling neo-soul, hip-hop and indie. He’s traditionalist but boho, being closer to King Krule than Ed Sheeran.
The singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist self-released his 2015 mixtape-cum-album Bcos U Will Never B Free. He followed with the romantic Apricot Princess, inspired by his childhood sweetheart, vocalist Thea Morgan-Murrell (she duetted on ‘Sycamore Girl’). Rex then signed to Sony Music for Pony, which reached the Top 5 here in Australia and launched the popular string-laden ballad ‘Pluto Projector’. In early 2019, he toured with Laneway outside an album cycle, attracting the fest’s largest crowds. The timing of WHO CARES? is auspicious with Rex finally returning to Aus for a tour this September.
Like Billie Eilish, Rex has achieved success while maintaining creative autonomy. He worked with producer Two Inch Punch (Sam Smith, Jessie Ware) on Apricot Princess. But, overall, Rex has recorded either solitarily or with lesser-known studio-types. In 2017 he generated heat with two cameos on Tyler, The Creator’s art-rap Flower Boy (including ‘Boredom’ alongside the Norwegian electro-popster Anna Of The North). Mind, Rex didn’t trade on the association. Indeed, though he could be as ubiquitous as Sheeran, Rex has continued to circulate pop with bedsit charm.
WHO CARES? is Rex’s most accomplished album, even if he’s not departed from his original style. Again, he’s eschewed flossy hitmakers and guests. Instead, Rex co-produced WHO CARES? with Dutchman Benny Sings (Tim van Berkestijn) in Amsterdam, having previously collaborated with him on 2017’s standalone single ‘Loving Is Easy’, a hit. A musician active in the Netherlands’ hip-hop scene since the ’90s, Sings has latterly joined Stones Throw Records as a solo act and featured on the Free Nationals’ album.
In WHO CARES? Rex has delivered a soul album with a nostalgic easy listening aesthetic comparable to the underrated Rumer. He’s embraced ever more intricate arrangements, the LP’s orchestration rivalling Little Simz’ Sometimes I Might Be Introvert. Especially sumptuous, ‘WORTH IT’ integrates symphonic elements with a funky groove. Awesomely, Tyler, The Creator raps on the neo-soul highlight ‘OPEN A WINDOW’. But Rex still isn’t about flashy manoeuvres. The nexus of WHO CARES? is the songs – and their sentiments.
WHO CARES? has been pitched as “a playful record by an artist in a playful mood.” Yet Rex made it during the uncertainty of the pandemic and, significantly, after breaking-up with Thea. (Somewhat awkwardly, Rex announced that he was single the same week Thea dropped her debut, Land Of Nod.) As such, the ostensibly carefree Rex betrays anxieties. WHO CARES? has both snarky and sad boi songs.
In 2018 Rex (randomly) covered Randy Newman’s ‘You’ve Got A Friend In Me’ – the theme to the ’90s Disney-Pixar animated film Toy Story, the rock legend himself along for the ride. Curiously, many songs on the “playful” WHO CARES? evoke the folksy irony of Newman classics like the facetious ’70s hit ‘Short People’, only they’re less observational than existentialist.
Rex starts the album with the deceptively perky lead single ‘KEEP IT UP’ – its extravagant strings and soft electronic pads belying wry lyrics about self-doubt and the perils of motivation and persistence. He sings, “Every time I open my mouth/I have regrets in my mind, every time and no one seems to figure me out/I guess, it’s stress/It’s making me feel so depressed most my life I’ve felt so tired, but every now and then when I try… I say/Keep it up and go on.”
WHO CARES? often feels like a stream-of-conscious account of Rex’s life from 2019 to the present. In ‘7 AM’, the singer reflects on personal growth (“I’m gonna be a better man someday”), with – yes – Newman-y jaunty piano.
Elsewhere, Rex possibly alludes to his split from Thea. ‘THE SHADE’, with an ’80s indie vibe, foreshadows the disintegration of a relationship as he pleas for reassurance. “I went out to Amsterdam/Just so I could give you some space/But I kept opening my door just to see if you would walk through, but now I’m painting all my walls/Just to see if you like the shade.”
The album’s archly dramatic number is ‘SHOOT ME DOWN’, Rex sounding defensive over jazzy keys and melancholic strings.
However, WHO CARES? does have at least one sanguine bop – about new desire. ‘AMAZING’ is a heady love song for sad bois everywhere, Rex suitably sharing it on Valentine’s Day. The album’s sonic anomaly, ‘IF YOU WANT IT’, is electro hip-hop, Rex contemplating committing afresh.
Musically, WHO CARES? may not represent a huge progression for Rex Orange County. But he is perfecting his craft. Rex is pursuing stardom on his own terms – and he correctly intuits that creating a countercultural brand of individualistic pop is surely the secret to longevity.
‘WHO CARES?’ is out today. Download or stream, here. Rex Orange County will return to Australia for a nationwide tour this September.