Rex Orange County’s fourth album, Who Cares, slouches casually in the middle of 2022’s pop scene like Martin Crane’s old La-Z-Boy chair in Frasier’s sleek apartment. It’s defiant in its saggy-soft comforts, snagged through with retro colours and just daring you to recline into its low-slung grooves.
Surrey-born Alex O’Connor studied percussion at the BRIT School before self-recording his 2016 debut album, bcos u will never b free, under his Rex Orange County moniker. Over a moochy blend of jazz, pop and hip hop, he delivered conversational lyrics about self-doubt, obsessive love and peer pressure. This caught the attention of US rapper Tyler, the Creator, who signed him up to collaborate on his 2017 album, Flower Boy. Each successive album won the sketchily bearded O’Connor more listeners: “I’ve been so lucky so far, it’s outrageous,” he sang on 2019’s Pony, which charted at No 3 in the US (No 5 in the UK).
Who Cares finds O’Connor, now 23, continuing to embrace jollier beats while owning his ambivalence. “What if I’m not cut out for this?/ And I keep wanting to call it quits?” he soliloquises, nodding along to Seventies soul-indebted basslines of “7AM”. The live percussion comes with deep, rattling pocket, while sophisticated strings swoon all around him. In bedhead vocals over the bittersweet organ and rattle-snap snare of “Keep it Up”, he admits to stress and lethargy before giving himself a pep talk chorus: “Keep it up and go on/ You’re only holding out for what you want/ You no longer owe the strangers/ It’s enough, it’s enough.”
“Open a Window” introduces a moreishly squelchy, Stevie Wonder-style bass and a rap from his old pal, Tyler. Doubts swirl on “7AM”, which is backed by piano riffs that nod back to O’Connor’s idol Billy Joel, as he mulls: “I want to be independent, but what if I’m hopeless and dependent once again?” He flips out some giddily romantic clichés on “Amazing” and “One in a Million”. There’s a wit to the way he serves up these hipster coffee-shop sounds, but the playful pastichery can feel a little aimless. His affable meandering is part of his charm… but also his greatest flaw.
He hits home harder with the more assertive “Shoot Me Down”, on which a terrific, deep-roiling drum loop drives a dramatic plea for a lover to give him more time. “Don’t lose me now,” he begs, “I’ll stick around/ We’ll do it somehow…” The album ends on the upbeat bounce of the title track. Far from the shrugging attitude the phrase suggests, the song sees O’Connor finding fresh purpose now that he knows “who cares”. You can hear him smiling through his hum. Sweet and frothy. Probably still a little coffee shop. But not Starbucks, more the soundtrack to your local quirky independent caffeinator.