Throughout Prioritise Pleasure, her second album as Self Esteem, Rebecca Taylor searches for a feeling she can rely on. Her stomach and heart seldom align. A callous lover makes her doubt herself. “Casual” texts from an ex evidently conceal ulterior motives. She has to check out emotionally in order to climax from a zipless fuck. Marriage and babies don’t appeal, yet other people’s still make her insecure. Even the nostalgia induced by a warm summer’s day can trick her into self-sabotage.
Pacing these shifting sands is exhausting. But simply by defining them, and acknowledging how normal it is for these contradictory states to coexist (especially in the lives of women, contorted by diet culture and dating), Taylor establishes a sturdy sense of common ground – one on which the makings of a stellar pop second act are taking shape.
After a decade in indie duo Slow Club, in 2019, Taylor channelled her unabashed pop ambitions into the solo project Self Esteem. Her debut album, Compliments Please, had a thrilling sprawl and showed off a new, uninhibited voice. The stage name was her attempt at cultivating some where it was sorely lacking. With additional help from a therapist, she said recently, it pretty much worked. That is abundantly clear from Prioritise Pleasure, an album totally confident in its strange, brilliant vision: if there is a counterforce to all that instability, Taylor implies, it is in nothing but full-throated expression. During the press campaign, she re-enacted Britney Spears’ infamous 1999 Rolling Stone cover; the cowboy-hatted album artwork references Music-era Madonna. You get the sense she won’t need to dress up as other pop stars for much longer.
Prioritise Pleasure is a rare big pop album after 18 months of comparatively diminutive offerings from headline female pop acts. The likes of Taylor Swift, Hayley Williams, Lorde, Billie Eilish and Kacey Musgraves have opted for smaller sounds to telegraph self-acceptance – perhaps implying that competing at that level is at odds with finding happiness. Peace is hard won, whatever form it takes – and Taylor hasn’t experienced anything like the career pressures they have – but nevertheless it’s emboldening to hear her finding hers in vastness and noise; in thundering drums, unabashedly dramatic strings and huge communal choruses rich with gospel fervour and pop stickiness.
Those towering elements are twisted by intuitive production (by Taylor and Johan Karlberg of the Very Best) that seems inspired by the gothic sprawl of recent Beyoncé albums, but doesn’t really sound like anything else. On the title track, Taylor breathlessly lists her shortcomings over a choppy, earthy beat: “I shrunk, moved and changed,” she sings, a state of affairs that she immediately defies with a dizzying, moving chorus. Beauty and abrasiveness sit side by side: Still Reigning dazzles like a fully saturated sunrise then cuts out, desolate; How Can I Help You essentially interpolates the snarling beat of Kanye West’s Black Skinhead, which jars against Taylor’s frenzied account of her own pliancy: “Never grow old / I’ll always be wet / Always be up for it / Politely sit,” she sings in a spit-flecked chant. It is a big, bodily record, its physicality reminiscent of how rhythm, movement and contact are proven ways of reprogramming the brain’s neural pathways in the treatment of trauma. Taylor flogs the shame out, and fulfils the album’s pleasure-first brief in all this synaptic titillation.
Impressively, scale never comes at the expense of nuance and real intimacy. Taylor digs around in the humiliating, pathetic bits of a breakup that left her face to face with her flaws. She details her desperate compulsion to over-explain herself to other people; meanwhile she’s grasping for a sense of self, “out here trying to believe the idea of me”, she sings on Still Reigning. Taylor is 34 and her words feel thoroughly lived in. Barbed, perspicacious, comic and devastating, they evoke the work of Mike Skinner, Lily Allen and Alan Bennett if he spent a bit more time scrolling an ex’s timeline.
There’s the no-strings hook-up of Hobbies 2 who is “turning your back after checking I came … at least that’s something”. The self-deprecating Moody is a cheerleader chant about self-destruction that starts: “Sexting you at the mental health talk seems counterproductive.” There’s rage fit for loud communal chants on the prickling opener, I’m Fine: “Do you understand the pain you cause / When you see a body just for sport? I tried to let you down so gently / When I had the right to tell you simply / No.” Moving between belting and conversational styles enriched by her Rotherham accent, Taylor comes off as that gripping barfly who casually gets up to knock out an Adele song at karaoke and leaves the room gawping.
It all comes together best on I Do This All The Time, which, improbably, melds the influence of Arab Strap, Baz Luhrmann’s Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen) and Lisa Stansfield into song-of-the-year material. Taylor reels off her failings (“Don’t send those long paragraph texts / Stop it / Don’t”) with despair and real tenderness, digressing into the conflicting, underhand things men have told her about herself that make it harder to stand tall. She is bolstered, again, by her strident choir, who form part of a massive strings-drenched crescendo that races towards some imagined, better future.
Prioritise Pleasure is one of those phrases that has become neutered by girlboss culture, slogan mugs and manifold other ways of beneficently letting people buy back a feeling stolen from them by those same moneymaking forces. Self-Esteem’s second album shows that it is never as easy as all that. It’s a powerfully intense record that some may recoil from; confrontational and liable to catch you off-guard as Taylor crisply extracts gutting truths from the general murk of self-loathing, never sugarcoating grimness nor over-egging her attempts at self-affirmation. Despite the imperative contained in the title, the album doesn’t preach but invites you in, suggesting pleasure as a collective vision born of shared confidences. It’s remarkable.