Rex Orange County may have strayed too far from home. As one of the pioneers of contemporary bedroom pop — a catch-all term for laid back, homegrown music — the English musician stood out with his jazz and soul influences.
With boyish charm and irrepressible style, he ensnared the hearts of fans everywhere, including alt/indie royalty Tyler, the Creator. After several features on Tyler’s Flower Boy, Rex gained the public’s attention, riding that success into his first two studio albums, Apricot Princess and Pony. Now he is back with a third, WHO CARES?, a cheeky title that may have foreshadowed all the wrong things.
“KEEP IT UP” starts the album on a joyful note, a playful track that lyrically flips between the somber and the inspirational: “Most my life, I’ve felt so tired/ But every now and then when I try, I say/ Keep it up and go on.” From there, it becomes difficult to find much variation from track to track. Each song tends to blend into the other with no clear standouts. The same could be said for his vocal performance, which remains relatively monochromatic, lacking intrigue.
Put plainly, the album is pretty simple. “AMAZING,” the fourth track and second single of the album, is stylistically similar to that of “KEEP IT UP.” Both tracks take almost too much liberty with the violin and lack nuance in their sweetly positive messages — “Don’t change a thing, you are amazing.” In that sense, WHO CARES? was designed for casual listening, and perhaps the apathy that the title suggests.
Rex always shines in his instrumentation; one quality separating him from many of his bedroom pop peers is his flirtation with the grandiose. The most popular track on his 2019 album Pony, “Pluto Projector,” culminates in a duet between grand, lilting violin and heavy bass that cosmically builds before crashing down to earth in a seamless blend of the electronic and the orchestral. WHO CARES? makes an attempt to capture that same instrumental magic but struggles to commit. The first four tracks all begin with reminiscent strings that fall flat, failing to capture the emotion jam-packed into his previous works.
Even “SHOOT ME DOWN”, which takes the largest departure from the album’s bright and bubbly tone, is not immune to this loss of ardor. The song begs for the climactic — a moment of intensity or boldness — that is never quite achieved by the unrelenting and unvarying bass line. With a dramatic flourish found only in the title, the song ultimately misses the mark.
That isn’t to say that the songs on WHO CARES? are substandard. Rex’s production is as clean as it has ever been — especially with a major label’s backing — and his songs haven’t lost the childlike sensibility that kept his music lively despite somber lyrics. The title track, “WHO CARES?”, an earnest pondering on the insecurities that come with creating in the spotlight, knits the existential with a Sesame Street subtlety. “First time I tried this I was free of doubt/ I had no fear/ Why can’t I just do that again,” he sings over a simple melody of piano and bass.
It’s easy to see why Rex asks that question. Though his creativity catapulted him to stardom where he burned brightly, it seems as if this album has lost that spark. Where his previous work was dynamic, WHO CARES? approaches plasticity.
Overall, the album is a breezy listen. Even with its often doleful lyrics, the springy beats make for perfect head-bop-inducing background music perfect for a picnic with friends or a walk on the beach. Yet, WHO CARES? lacks what made Rex Orange County’s music exciting to listen to in the first place — imagination. Growing out of making music in his bedroom could have afforded him the room to flourish as an artist, but this album proves otherwise. If anything, his blooming potential has only been nipped in the bud.