Alex O’Connor was 17 years old when he released his self-produced debut album on digital streaming services. At 23, adolescent originality continues to permeate his work. “WHO CARES?” is his fourth studio album, and O’Connor — widely known by his stage name, Rex Orange County — is still moody and musing.
“WHO CARES?” opens with a beautiful string arrangement leading into the first song, “KEEP IT UP” — O’Connor has amped up the orchestral elements he experimented with on his last album, “Pony.” “WHO CARES?” accommodates a sonic contrast between swells of warm instrumentals and cool, produced bedroom pop — a contrast that is expertly reconciled in songs like “AMAZING.” O’Connor’s newest release also expresses an endearing combination of angst and enthusiasm, a tonal contrast between gloomy lyrics and repeatable melodies. The album feels at once weighty and accessible.
Throughout the album, O’Connor revisits his collaboration with Dutch artist Benny Sings, who co-wrote and featured on O’Connor’s catchy 2017 single “Loving is Easy.” Sings’ production of the album blends soulful jazz and R&B influences into O’Connor’s contemporary lo-fi pop sound, and his effect is especially felt in the blissful melody and bright instrumentals of “THE SHADE.”
“OPEN A WINDOW” finds O’Connor similarly reprising his collaboration with rapper Tyler, the Creator, a collaboration that began on his 2017 album “Flower Boy” and is equally successful here. Both O’Connor and Tyler settle into the song’s mellow rhythm, and the rapper’s verse adds lyrical complexity to O’Connor’s hypnotic chorus.
Though O’Connor touches on dark themes — wondering if “it’s not worth it anymore” on “WORTH IT” and asking “what if this heart breaks into something I’m unable to heal?” on “SHOOT ME DOWN” — this album lacks the depth of earlier work.
Prior album “Pony” has “It’s Not the Same Anymore,” a standout track that traces the complex development from lamenting change to accepting it and acknowledging one’s own growth — “WHO CARES?” has no equivalent.
Similarly, “WHO CARES?” reveals the limitations of O’Connor’s unique lyrical style. He writes literally, stating that “it’s making me feel so depressed / most of my life I’ve felt so tired” on “KEEP IT UP,” and complaining that it’s “lonely here tonight / no one I can speak to right now” on “SHOOT ME DOWN.” This direct approach can feel juvenile, and songs like “KEEP IT UP” and “AMAZING” are so straightforward they border on generic.
But while O’Connor’s directness can limit him, it also renders him immune to the cliché often associated with the emotional content of his work. He states his feelings honestly, dodging disingenuity and showiness. He may be blunt, but he feels earnest, and this earnestness elevates his universal reflections on love and self-doubt.
O’Connor’s sound is distinct. His mumbling voice and stirring melodies are characteristic and instantly recognizable, and they situate “WHO CARES?” firmly within his body of work. O’Connor is consistent, and this album feels like a natural progression for him as an artist. He returns to themes of anxiousness and heartbreak that have been successful for him in the past and continues to deliver winning songs that are melancholy but reassuring.
O’Connor is self-assured, clearly confident in his sound and in his sincerity. He expertly executes a tricky tonal ambivalence and shares genuine emotional reflections to a comfortable rhythm. Rex Orange County has grown. “WHO CARES” is a sweet account of the things he’s learned, and of the things he’s still in the process of learning.