Image Courtesy of Genius.com
By Joey Brasco
Bedroom-pop extraordinaire Rex Orange County has returned with a follow-up to 2019’s Pony with his new record WHO CARES?.
This new album is entirely produced by Benny Sings, who worked with Rex to produce one of his biggest tracks, 2017’s sunny and endearing “Loving Is Easy.” The two recorded the entire album in Amsterdam together over the course of 10 days. This album also contains a feature from Tyler, The Creator, which is the first collaboration between the two since Rex was prominently featured on several tracks from Tyler’s 2017 album, Flower Boy.
“KEEP IT UP” was the first taste of this new record, with it and its accompanying video being released in late January. The song feels like meeting up with an old friend and picking up right where you left off..
As a lead-single, “KEEP IT UP” paints a clear picture of what is to come with this record. Following the string-laced intro, we get a song filled with energetic basslines, perky keys, and gentle melodies from Rex. He has described the song as a sort of motivational anthem to keep pushing on despite being weighed down by negative emotions.
Rex always does a great job of sugar-coating his sadness, as the plucky key melodies and his gentle vocals makes this a feel-good jam despite the lyrical focus on the artist’s pain.
Track two, “OPEN A WINDOW,” brings the aforementioned collaboration with Tyler, The Creator. The track is a slow-paced jam, with more strings and a thumping beat.
Rex focuses on themes of escapism, and wanting to rid himself of people holding him back, delivering blunt lyrics like, “F**k this, I might leave the people telling me what I should do.”
Although lacking melodic variability between the verses and chorus, the bass groove here is supremely chill, and the bright keys complemented by cascading strings make for a beautiful tapestry for Rex to work with.
The Tyler feature is unfortunately a bit underwhelming, as he sports a safe sounding flow with eye-roll lyrics like “at the roots like a tree / see, I just up and I leaf.”
His addition does not add much to the track, and the two have had superior collaborations.
The following track, “WORTH IT,” suffers from a lack of cohesive song-structure. A mellow string intro gives way to a regal orchestral loop that is seasoned with a punchy beat. Rex’s melody here is immediately engaging, but all of this positive momentum washes away as the strings from the intro abruptly return, killing the flow of the track. By the time the chorus and more energetic instrumentation return, the song is all but over. This rushed and congested structure results in an unfulfilling listen.
“AMAZING” is a much more straightforward tune, and much better off for it. The sweeping string section imbues the song with wondrous elegance right from the get-go. The verses implement watery guitar tones and rapidly played strings while the chorus peppers in twinkling bells, providing great instrumental variety.
The lyrical focus deals with Rex’s admiration for a lover who helps him through his flaws, as Rex self-deprecates on the bridge, “Search the definition of shame, I’m sure you’ll see my face.”
The track is supremely cute, and Rex does a fantastic job of delivering a track that is deftly capable of filling you with a sense of melancholic optimism; where you feel the tangible sadness of his words while maintaining a sense that all will be alright in the end.
“ONE IN A MILLION” depicts Rex pining for a cozy, quaint love-affair, as he romanticizes the idea of having someone to hang out with at home.
The mantra of “My heart keeps driving me crazy / there’s nothing much I can do, I’m aware,” is a pretty perfect encapsulation of Rex’s lyrical stylings, as the lovesick puppy schtick is one he sticks to pretty religiously throughout this album.
“IF YOU WANT IT,” unfortunately, is not a highlight. The discordant string melodies and droning base are garish and grating on the ears. The decision to add a reverb-heavy autotune effect on Rex’s voice á la-Travis Scott is a head-scratcher, too.
“7AM,” with its overly-simple piano lead, is too senselessly happy to handle. The string section on this track is particularly entrancing, but it cannot salvage the severely underwritten chorus.
The album bounces back in a big way with the groovy tune “THE SHADE.” The slinky baseline is effortlessly cool, and serves as the groundwork to layer instrumental quirks onto as the song progresses. The twinkling bells on the second chorus in particular give the song an added shot of whimsical charm.
The lyrical focus of the song sees Rex doing all he can to fix a relationship that has gone cold. The opening lines, “I was closin’ all the blinds, just so you could sleep the night through / I was stayin’ by your side, just so I knew you were okay,” will surely conjure up warm and fuzzy feelings galore.
The penultimate track on the album, “SHOOT ME DOWN,” sees a much more dire shift in tone. The downtrodden piano lead and hollow drums bring a lot of depressive grandeur.
The bridge has Rex proclaiming, “no one can stop me now” as the drums and strings melt away to highlight Rex’s weightless vocals. It is a blissful moment that is then shot back down (ha!) into a gray fog on the defeated chorus. The song does meander though, and never reaches an emotional or instrumental climax a track with this length warrants.
“WHO CARES?” serves as a fairly tidy closer to the album. The instrumental is essentially a remix of the previous “7AM,” but with a far-less awkward implementation of its main key melody.
The chorus sees Rex simply repeating the phrase “Who cares?” as he looks for those around him with his best interests in mind.
Many listeners may be left asking this question for themselves, as a lot of the material here is not as immediately ear-grabbing as much of Rex’s older work. There is no song with the bombastic presentation as “Best Friend” or “Sunflower,” likely leading to many giving this project the proverbial shoulder shrug.
What “WHO CARES?” does well is give long-time fans another helping of what they have come to love from Rex Orange County. He delivers narratives of mental health struggles and unrequited love balanced by expressions of joy and optimism for the future; all of this being funneled through warm and approachable melodies and orchestral-laced instrumentals. That same optimism Rex expresses for a better tomorrow should be maintained by those who may find this record underwhelming. Although this record may not best older works like Apricot Princess, it still demonstrates what makes Rex special in the modern pop scene. He remains an artist interested in penning fun and exuberant songs that do not skimp on emotional heft.
Also, there are funny dalmations on the cover art so this album has that going for it as well.