Rebecca Lucy Taylor, now best known by her stage name, Self Esteem, spent years being told what to do. For a decade she was half of the much-loved indie folk duo Slow Club, who disbanded in 2017. Their fans were devastated when they broke up, but for Taylor it had been stifling, creatively and otherwise. As the only woman on stage she was told to “stop showing off”; and that “if you weren’t doing this you’d be working in McDonald’s, so try to cheer up”. She speaks these words in her own voice – calm, accepting, strictly Rotherham – on her second solo album, Prioritise Pleasure, on which Self Esteem is the one doing the telling, the advising, the taking-up space.
Self Esteem is a stark departure from the mellow musings of Slow Club: this is 1980s Madonna, the Spice Girls, knee-high boots, fizzy cola. Nothing is understated. She is thoughtful, bemused, sure of nothing but her own feelings yet always firmly rooted, speaking from the inside, looking out. “I’m human/What are you?”, she asks on “Hobbies 2”, an echo of a previous lyric: “You say I’m a nightmare/What does that make you?”.
Though it is stylistically consistent with her debut, Compliments Please, Prioritise Pleasure is bigger, louder and darker. In Taylor’s world, being rooted in one’s emotions is a method of survival. She finds a musical anchor in torrents of rage, which bubble up and overflow at every juncture, in vast choruses, lucid lyrics and driving percussion (she has played drums since she was 13). And how could they not when so many of us, in our own way, are being told just to “fit in that little dress of yours” – when past relationships made Taylor “doubt [her] life”; when she “served you/Because I didn’t know how not to”?
Throughout the album, the colossal proportions of the vocals – scream-sung by a choir, part Arcade Fire, part Kanye West and Bon Iver – act as rallying cries. Opener “I’m Fine” begins with a slow, defiant marching beat and a far-off tune that sounds like a call to arms. As the song builds, the chorus splits into full gospel harmony: “No, not me/I won’t rein in my need to be completely free”. The result is a stratospheric type of beauty, but the fuel is hot-blooded fury.
Prioritise Pleasure crackles with the energy of an electrical storm, created by the friction of certainty and uncertainty. Taylor is demanding (“prioritise pleasuring me”) and occasionally frivolous (“So I leave you on read/And I don’t care how you feel about it”) – but lines that risk being read in isolation as self-centred millennial-talk are in context bold statements of autonomy in a landscape otherwise defined by sadness and uncertainty. “I’ve never just enjoyed the moment happening right now/I’ve never known how”, she sings on the title track. Later on “John Elton”, she discovers an ex has settled down and had a child, and on “I Do This All The Time” she recalls that “the best night of your life was the absolute worst of mine”.
Through all this, Self Esteem still draws us to the dancefloor, still channels the glamour that she wanted to adopt when she went solo. She turns mainstream pop into an act of rebellion, manipulating a genre defined by its shiny artifice into something raw and real. “Moody” sparkles with a playful beat and singalong chorus but is disrupted by slow-motion, distorted verses. “Prioritise Pleasure” is catchy and singable in the verse, but explodes into a rapturous chorus that catches its listener off guard. The pockets of spoken word – such as the quotes from her former managers – feel honest and seamless, though they are sonically incongruous with the pounding stadium-fillers. Playing live, she dances girlband-esque choreography with her backing singers in a display of sisterhood.
These contrasts and interruptions, high highs and low lows, make perfect sense: this is how, we are led to believe, Self Esteem lives. The record pulls us through base emotions – hunger, freedom, derangement and pleasure, pleasure, pleasure – and hovers on extremes. “I don’t know s**t” is shouted over and over again over pounding drums in “How Can I Help You”; in “Still Reigning” she feels “everything, nothing at all” over gentle, forgiving strings.
Still, Self Esteem remains rooted to the spot – she even uses it as a motif (“Be as one/Hold on/Steady stand”, she sings on “I Do This all the Time”, recalling a track from her first album, “Steady I Stand”). On the last song, “Just Kids”, a huge final outpouring of just strings and melt-in-the-mouth harmonies, she is “So excited to see me through your eyes” – a reversal, perhaps, of all that looking outwards. The melody – and thickly layered vocals – recalls the opening track. But where “I’m Fine” began with Taylor’s solo voice and grew into harmony, “Just Kids” does the opposite: suddenly, when you think it can’t get any bigger, she’s alone again, and the party’s over.
This is a record of rage and forgiveness, courage and fear. It is less a statement of identity and more a statement of existence. On Prioritise Pleasure, Self Esteem has kept her promise from the first track: complete freedom.
[See also: How the Eighties reinvented pop music]