Speaking in her first NME cover story earlier this year, Rebecca Lucy Taylor set out the blueprint for Self Esteem’s playful, larger-than-life approach to music: “I want to use the palatable nature of pop to Trojan horse in my agenda.”
- READ MORE: On the cover – Self Esteem: “I want to use the palatable nature of pop to Trojan horse in my agenda”
It’s an accurate summing-up of the solo artist’s second album ‘Prioritise Pleasure’, which often uses the genre as a vehicle for smuggling in darkly funny lyrics unpicking institutional sexism, street harassment and society’s aversion to centring women’s pleasure. Throughout, Taylor is less interested in why or how these things occur – why should it fall to women to solve the behaviour perpetuated by men, after all? – and instead she celebrates the myriad of ways in which she prioritises and accepts herself without blame or guilt.
The path to self-acceptance never did run smooth, though, and accordingly ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ skewers Taylor’s own journey by detailing her various stumbles and self-doubts along the way. As bright, synthetic parps open ‘Moody’, she despairs of counterproductively “sexting you at the mental health talk”. “Talk of mistakes?” she shrugs elsewhere on the strutting ‘You Forever’. “I’ve made loads of ‘em”.
These retellings are often sharply witty. Atop the slinking grooves of ‘I Do This All The Time’ – undoubtedly the best song Self Esteem has ever written to date – Taylor grapples with the ethics of bailing on a slightly awkward party in deadpan spoken-word (“when I’m buried in the ground,” she quips, “I won’t be able to make your birthday drinks but I will still feel guilty”) and insists that she mustn’t feel guilty for having fun instead of babies.
Best of all is when Taylor takes the moral high and low ground in the space of a single sentence. “You’re beautiful and I want the best for you,” Taylor insists through gritted teeth, “but I also hope you fail without me”. As much as most people like to think they’re mature enough to approach their break-ups with unquenchable amounts of grace, dignity and decorum, a reasonable amount of pettiness is actually… very cathartic, it turns out.
With the album rooted in humour, ‘Prioritise Pleasure’’s moments of sincerity shine brightly. As the title track lists all of the small joys that make Taylor happy – from unfollowing her ex to indulgent lie-ins – the call-and-response vocals reach a triumphant crescendo. “That’s just for me,” they affirm, again and again. The tender devotion of ‘The 345’ is the nearest this album comes to an entirely straight-faced love ballad, and even then, Taylor knows when to comically undermine herself. After seriously detailing, on a muffled voice note, how our lives gradually narrow like a mountain, and ominously stating that our eventual death is waiting at the summit, she bursts into helpless laughter.
While Self Esteem’s debut album, 2019’s ‘Compliments Please’, saw her sometimes struggle to find a distinctive voice amid its slightly bulky track-listing – pursuing everything from hushed folk guitars and bright, bluesy organ melodies to the sharp-angled influence of Rn’B – its successor bursts with a distinctive lyrical charisma. At times, the lyrics do a little too much of the heavy lifting, and if the debut sometimes suffered from a grab-bag of influences, ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ occasionally suffers from the opposite problem.
Taylor is clearly captivated by the brilliant absurdity of pop music – just look at her choreo-laden live show and visual reference points – and at times, it feels like this record could push slightly louder and brighter. ‘You Forever’ toys with ‘80s slap-bass but shies away from full-blown saturated excess, while ‘It’s Been A While’ ends up in the shadows of stronger tracks that harness a similarly left-field R&B sound. This is ‘Prioritise Pleasure’s only Achilles’ Heel, however: when Self Esteem really goes all-out, she ends up with songs as sublime as ‘I Do This All The Time’ and ‘Prioritise Pleasure’s life-affirming title track.
Previously, it also felt very much like Taylor was fighting to separate herself from a decade playing in the indie band Slow Club: her debut album opened with a spoken-word piece called ‘(Feelings)’, performed by a collaborator credited as Blanche Lange. “When you’re in a band everybody really doesn’t want the same thing you want,” Lange says, seeming to speak the words that Taylor aches to say herself. “And so you gotta… you have to make a decision and not worry about hurting somebody’s feelings”.
On ‘Prioritise Pleasure’, however, that tentative indecision – and Rebecca Lucy Taylor’s former band – feel like a distant memory. Assured and unapologetic, it’s charged with a dark, smirking wit that’s impossible to turn away from, and achieves an incredibly impressive feat: not only does Self Esteem detail the fear, uneasiness and anger of being a woman – keys clutched between our fists – but also manages to make us laugh at the sheer absurdity of being forced to navigate a world that has, quite unbelievably, normalised misogyny.
Release date: October 22
Release label: Universal Music