by Chloe Cohen
Despite some catchy hooks and a cohesive narrative, on his new album WHO CARES? Alex O’Connor, known as Rex Orange County, plays it safe. O’Connor has always charmed listeners with his distinctive, soothing, bedroom-pop vibe, and he maintains this formula for success with his fourth album. 2019’s Pony received generally favorable reviews, with critics praising his developing talent. Unfortunately, WHO CARES? sits on the same caliber as Pony — it maintains the same warmth and perseverance, but shows no development from O’Connor as a musician.
Many fans expected something dramatic from O’Connor, perhaps a heart-wrenching breakup album, following the end of his latest relationship. WHO CARES? however, sounds very similar to much of his previous work, and many of the songs feel lyrically shallow. There is a theme of perseverance through stress and depression, but tracks like “SHOOT ME DOWN” and “7AM” describe O’Connor’s feelings of anxiety without explaining where they come from. They have the potential to make the album much deeper, but they fall short lyrically. And despite his distinct bouncy voice, O’Connor’s vocals on these tracks lack power and the emotion to be really convincing.
“KEEP IT UP,” the opening track, and “AMAZING,” feel like classic O’Connor: bubbly, yet gentle — easy listening pop perfection. “KEEP IT UP” sets the tone for the album: post-breakup depression. O’Connor sings about doing his best and not owing anyone anything, which are prominent themes throughout the album. It could be Benny Sings’ production, but “AMAZING” sounds like a slightly more amped-up version of O’Connor’s 2017 smash hit, “Loving Is Easy.” Is this a nod to his past success, or does O’Connor rely on his successful model too rigidly? Either way, “AMAZING” is a hit. The instrumentals fill it with love and the strings sound absolutely beautiful. O’Connor’s use of strings on numerous tracks adds some cohesiveness, and succeeds in adding emotion and joy where his vocals may lack.
The strings at the end of “KEEP IT UP” lead into track number two, “OPEN A WINDOW (feat. Tyler, the Creator),” also known as the best song on the album. The bass synth in the production adds some dimension to the track, which sounds more distinct than any of the other songs. Sonically, it feels like classic O’Connor with a twist, which the rest of the album failed to accomplish. O’Connor sings about feeling pressure to change who he is and struggling to find sources of happiness. Tyler’s verse showcases the deepest lyrics we see on the album, with colorful metaphors such as “Like the middle car on freeway pile up with semi-trucks / Open door, but you can’t, try to run, but you pant.”
Despite falling short lyrically, there is cohesion through O’Connor’s use of strings and the anxious mood as a result of his breakup. “SHOOT ME DOWN,” the second-to-last track, reflects O’Connor’s emotional battle the most of any song on the album. He urges his new girl to work through the bad sides of their relationship, and feels scared of the state he falls into when his heart gets broken. It pushes themes of self doubt heard in “KEEP IT UP,” and embraces a newfound sense of self-confidence, bringing the album full-circle. It leads into the last track, “WHO CARES?” — where O’Connor accepts that he might as well do whatever he wants because he is in charge of his own life, and who and what matters to him. It’s not the self-love anthem it could be to close out the album with a bang, but it is a sweet wrap-up to the themes mentioned throughout the prior ten songs.
There are some beautiful moments on WHO CARES?, yet overall, many of the tracks are too similar, or just not special or inventive enough, to be memorable. The emotional struggles O’Connor describes are touched upon too lightly, lacking the depth the songs need to be truly compelling. WHO CARES? is a good, fun album, but O’Connor fails to fulfill his potential to surpass his past work.