If Compliments Please taught us anything, it was that Self Esteem (Rebecca Taylor) is not shy about sharing her truth – no matter how traumatic that truth might be at times. By opening Prioritise Pleasure with ‘I’m Fine’, a song addressed to somebody who used her ‘body just for sport’, she shows us that this feature will be key to the second album, too. Another central tenet of the debut, though, was a display of a massive amount of strength in the face of bullshit (and worse). ‘I’m Fine’’s chorus of ‘No, not me/I won’t rein in my/Need to be/Completely free’ takes that tenet up another notch. While there are better songs than the opener later in the album, there couldn’t have been a better way to kick off this much anticipated release. ‘I’m Fine’ says everything you need to know about this dynamic, honest, and exciting artist – and it sets you up perfectly for the emotional ride of her phenomenal sophomore LP.
Following the opener with ‘Fucking Wizardry’, we are immediately treated to another display of Self Esteem’s strength. Here, we get an admission of regret at a fucked up relationship, but a powerful display of recovery and self-compassion in lines such as ‘I ignored the warnings/but from this I’m learning.’ Two albums in and there is yet to be a song by Self Esteem that isn’t ridiculously relatable, and that’s what makes her such a special artist, but there is something even more universal about this song. One of her best so far. The title song has a similar effect of making anyone who has lived with anxiety feel seen and heard – this track almost entirely sums up the feeling of waking with a hangover, convincing yourself you said something awful the night before. The lines ‘never have I just enjoyed the moment/Happening right now/I’ve never known how’ hit particularly hard. They may seem simple – but that is what works so well here. Simplicity, honesty, directness. And as this song works to its conclusion, we are given a template for how to fight these feelings. It’s a journey from fear to strength.
The other crucial element in the makeup of Self Esteem, though, is how fun (and funny) her songs are at times. ‘Moody’ is the most obvious pop banger here – and opening with the line ‘Sexting you at the mental health talk seems counterproductive’ shows that funny side – it’s self-deprecating, sure – but it’s bloody hilarious too. I wasn’t sure about ‘How Can I Help You’ on my first listen to the album. It is the most out there and aggressive song on the album, but it has grown on me massively and is another song that shows how playful she can be as a songwriter.
If I have any criticism of the album (and I don’t really – it’ll definitely be in my top five of 2021), it could be that the album is a little frontloaded. Most of the absolute standouts, for me, are in the first six songs. And after ‘Moody’, so many of the songs sound like they ought to be the album’s emotional climax that it can sometimes feel like the album is drawing to a close only to kick into life again and again. Like four or five encores at a gig. Those potential album closers (‘Still Reigning’, ‘The 345’, ‘John Elton’, and actual closer ‘Just Kids’) are all fantastic in their own right (particularly ‘The 345’) but might have been slightly more impactful if there was one or two less of them on the album. That’s a minor criticism, though. And the album’s second half does reach a musical and thematic peak with the outstanding ‘You Forever.’ If you don’t want to have one of this year’s catchiest songs stuck in your head all day, then don’t listen to this one.
I haven’t mentioned the album’s mega-hit yet, and there is a reason for that. Whenever I’m extremely excited about an album I do my best to avoid the singles so that I can experience the album as a whole. It was very hard to that with ‘I Do This All The Time.’ As a huge fan of Compliments Please, and having gone to see Self Esteem five times on that album tour, it was really exciting to see that song explode earlier this year – to see tweets highlighting all the TV appearances, the praise, and the new fans coming on board. But I did avoid having a listen. And I’m really glad. This song sits as the centrepiece of the album, bringing everything Self Esteem does well together in one place. Power, humour, self-examination, inspiration, and a fuck you to the haters. It’s probably the song of the year.
It’s going to take me a while to decide where this album sits in comparison to Compliments Please (my 2019 Album of the Year). But I’ll admit now that I was concerned about how Self Esteem would follow up that debut. Often when such a surprising, unique debut is released it is followed by something disappointing. Not this time. Prioritise Pleasure isn’t perfect – but it is a perfect follow up, doubling down on the messaging of the first album, trying new things with the music, and honing an already amazing ability to tell a story and make everyone feel like it’s been written for them. If you don’t like this album you’re a miserable fucker.
Words by Fran Slater