There’s a lot to take in over the course of Self Esteem’s second album, Prioritise Pleasure. There’s the fact that it’s a massive jump in quality from the first album Compliments Please (which is some achievement as that album was, itself, excellent). There’s the sheer genre-hopping madness of it: from spoken word, to discordant rock, to proper ‘this will be Number 1 for weeks’ pop music. But most of all, there’s the anger bubbling away underneath it. Anger at men, anger at the patriarchy in general and anger at society. This album is the sound of Rebecca Taylor kicking ass, taking names and declaring she isn’t going to take any more of your shit.
Prioritise Pleasure is a richly compelling album. It’s also a big, glorious pop record, the sort that Taylor hinted at back in the days of her former band Slow Club’s Complete Surrender. Yet it’s also a vitally important album: a record that could be a feminist manifesto all on its own. It fuses the pop genius of the likes of Rihanna or Taylor Swift with the searing rage of early ‘90s Riot Grrrl. And you’re never entirely sure where it’s going, it has that thrilling quality of nearly coming off the rails at any second, before pulling back and correcting course just in time.
I’m Fine sets the stall out from the beginning – a song reflecting on assault (“Yeah you scare me, does that make you feel manly?”) before it segues into snippets of interviews Taylor made with female-identifying friends. “There is nothing a man finds more terrifying than a woman who appears completely deranged,” runs one quote, before howls and barking conclude the track. It’s unsettling, eerie and leaves you eager to see what comes next.
What does follow is some of the best, most inspiring music you’ll hear all year. Fucking Wizardry skips along with frenetic beats and gorgeous harmonies, but with a resigned tone to it (“To even get near to me was some kind of fucking wizardry”). The title track is a big, glorious gospel-tinged ode to female empowerment – there certainly won’t be many songs with lines like “shave my pussy, that’s just for me” delivered with such gusto. At the other end of the scale is How Can I Help You, an incredible slice of coruscating, drum heavy rock, with Taylor repeatedly screaming “I don’t know shit, I don’t know shit, I don’t know shit”. It’s 36 years of anger and frustration distilled into a two minute song and it sounds completely and utterly cathartic.
The album’s centrepiece is I Do This All The Time, which was released as a single earlier in the year. You won’t find a braver choice for a single all year: a spoken-word track which is part ‘message to my younger self’, and part verbatim quotes from men who Taylor has had to deal with over the years. There’s something almost impossibly moving about it – the juxtaposition of lines like “be wary of the favours that they do for you” and “if you weren’t doing this you’d be working in McDonalds” with the chorus of “Look up, lean back, be strong, you didn’t think you’d live this long”. It also contains some genuinely funny lines as well as traumatic ones, while the string section that runs through the song is so beautiful it almost breaks your heart.
In other hands, this could have collapsed under the weight of self-importance. Yet Taylor’s pop sensibility is ingrained into her – so Moody’s bouncy funk-pop sounds like it was born to be in the charts, even with a laugh-out-loud opening line of “Sexting you at the mental health talk seems counter-productive”. And behind the jokey title of John Elton lies an utterly heartbreaking ballad about attempting to move on from a relationship, which shows Taylor’s considerable vocal strengths to their very best.
It’s also one of those albums where your favourite track will vary from listen to listen – one day it could be the singalong magic of You Forever, the next you could be sobbing along with The 345, where Taylor turns her vitriolic eye on herself (“Every single morning look in the mirror and think eugh, you again”). The production is just as fresh on Compliments Please, with vocal tonal shifts and weird little chords and electronica squalls sitting amongst the perfect pop on display.
Prioritise Pleasure is an album that should win end of year polls, Brit Awards and Mercury nominations. But, more importantly than that, it’s an album to inspire your daughters and educate your sons with. It’s the album of Rebecca Taylor’s career, and surely quite comfortably the best record that will be released in 2021.