The 50 best albums of 2021, No 1: Self Esteem – Prioritise Pleasure

Rebecca Taylor uncorks a lifetime’s worth of festering emotions in a darkly funny and always invigorating celebration of being too big, too bold, too much

For many pop artists, the pandemic has been an exercise in downsizing. Taylor Swift used the sudden lull to eschew big pop moments in favour of tactile folky electronica that soothed and sedated; Lorde and Billie Eilish returned with low-key albums crafted in lockdown that consciously side-stepped fame’s monstrous glare. These shifts mirrored a collective sense of introspection and reappraisal of what’s important. Stewing in your feelings was matched only by online quizzes when it came to lockdown hobbies.

Prioritise Pleasure, Rebecca Taylor’s brilliantly bold second album as Self Esteem, chimes with that theme of emotional wallowing – but it’s quickly alchemised into a heady rush of realisation. Feelings don’t just bubble on the surface, they rise up like spewing volcanoes, urgent and ugly. In a pop landscape that often seems to be bottling it all up inside, Prioritise Pleasure marked a hugely relatable uncorking of not just the past 18 months’ worth of festering emotions, but a lifetime of them.

After a decade hemmed in as half of indie darlings Slow Club, Taylor released Compliments Please, her debut album as Self Esteem, in 2019. A tentative step away from her indie past shot through with blasts of pop escapism, she often sounded resigned to her fate. “What I might have achieved if I wasn’t trying to please,” she sighs on Rollout. On this unabashed follow-up, Taylor positions her needs first. The title track – a widescreen ode to self love in all forms – is about the benefits of ignoring that impulse to shape-shift, to diminish, and instead daring to break the mould. That realisation is reflected in the production by the Very Best’s Johan Hugo, who constructs the monumental chorus – all distorted guitar squall and communal vocals – like a wave crashing on to rocks.

Self Esteem: Moody – video

Taylor, now 35, has evolved into an out-and-proud pop star who dissects her emotions in pin-sharp, often darkly funny and always physically rousing testaments. Inspired by musicals and the empowered expression of Drag Race, her second album wears its theatricality proudly. The single Moody opens with the excellent line “Sexting you at the mental health talk seems counterproductive”, before riding a wobbly synth riff into its sugar-rush, pep-rally chorus. The song is a reclamation, Taylor has said, of the pejorative “mardy”, and it presents an alchemical transformation that runs throughout the album: after years of being told she was too big, too bold, too much, she celebrates all of those things as all-caps positives.

The sheer heft and physicality of the album, all Yeezus beats and elastic melodies, is balanced by Taylor’s ability to zoom in on the minutiae of life, paired with her economical wit. Fucking Wizardry instantly flings the listener into that ungoverned period following a breakup when texts are still being sent but no one knows where the boundaries are. Taylor admonishes both herself and her oblivious ex, but there’s also a moment of near divine clarity: “I cannot stress this enough / You’ll never know how to love,” she sings as the song’s primal march switches to a crawl. “I ignored the warnings / But from that, I’m learning.” As with all the album’s moments where the fog lifts, Taylor is joined by a small choir of friends who reiterate and co-sign her emotions.

Their presence also anchors lead single I Do This All the Time, with its swelling coda of “I’ll take care, I’ll read again, I’ll sing again, I will” transformed into the ultimate act of defiance. It’s the climax to Taylor’s spoken word verses, in which she picks at social anxiety, toxic behavioural patterns and death over a gentle trip-hop beat. And that’s just in verse one. The heaviness is balanced by a comedic flair that emerges in the shape of droll life lessons (“Don’t send those long paragraph texts / Stop it, don’t”) and well-earned self-help maxims (“All the days that you get to have are big”).

By verse four Taylor is focused on a relationship gone awry. Its subject is mourned and venerated in opposing lines before that sense of clarity returns, clear as day. “It was really rather miserable trying to love you,” she sings as a string figure unfurls skywards and the clouds part. It’s a confessional, rip-off-the-plaster lyric made to be yelled back at her in communal moments of catharsis. After nearly two years of cooping up big emotions in restricted spaces, the bold, brash and beautiful Prioritise Pleasure feels like sweet relief.


Michael Cragg

The GuardianTramp

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