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Music

Self Esteem's righteous reinvention should lead to Mercury Prize glory

Rebecca Lucy Taylor's radical about-turn from unhappy indie popster to purveyor of empowering R&B-flavoured anthems has been joyous to witness

Self Esteem live

Photo: Matt Crossick/Alamy Live News

There are lots of reasons why Rebecca Lucy Taylor AKA Self Esteem’s Prioritise Pleasure could, should and probably will win the 2022 Mercury Prize. For a flavour of them, you only need do a cursory sift of the critical acclaim heaped upon an album hailed as one of the best if not the very best of last year by most of the British music media.

“It’s a powerfully intense record that some may recoil from,” wrote Laura Snapes in a five-star review for The Guardian, “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.”

Writing for NME, El Hunt hailed Prioritise Pleasure as “assured and unapologetic… 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”.

Placing Prioritise Pleasure top of their 2021 end-of-year list, The Times declared “arenas surely beckon for a woman… who gave voice to fans who had thought nobody spoke for them”.

I’ve little to add to all the praise other than one minor observation – perhaps crowded out among the litany of positive and poignant things to say around this record – about pop’s extraordinary power for reinvention, and the way Taylor embodies it so upliftingly.

I’ve still only seen Self Esteem live once, together with thousands of others at last summer’s Green Man festival in Wales, when Taylor stole the weekend with a knockout set of retro ’90s R&B dance routines, big choruses and an even bigger personality. But I’d seen her perform live countless many times before that since 2006, as a member of now defunct Sheffield indie-folkie duo Slow Club.

Just 19 when Slow Club formed, Taylor sang and played drums alongside singer and guitarist Charles Watson on a rickety-looking DIY stand-up kit made out of what appeared to be old wooden chairs and a saucepan. They were sweet and funny and completely charming, and yet, even as they phased out the lo-fi twee affectations in favour of a soulful line in world-weary Americana, they remained unjustly overlooked and, after five albums, eventually succumbed to neurosis and burnout.

My fondest memory of them was a show in a mostly empty pub basement when Taylor and Watson, in a fourth-wall breaking act of characteristic warmth and humour, decided to share their rider with the crowd, lining about 20 beer cans along the front of the stage for the handful of fans present to help themselves to while they played. Thanks for the memories, Slow Club. And for the beers.

Slow Club may have been victims of timing much as anything else, swimming as they did against the tide of the homogenous, male-dominated era pejoratively known as “landfill indie” (think Razorlight, The Kooks et al). Navigating it seemed to leave Taylor not only worn out but scarred. She’s spoken of needing therapy to help her come to terms with years of, among other things, being manipulated and objectified by deadbeat men, from boyfriends to managers.

Those experiences feed into Self Esteem, and Taylor’s rousing message of liberation, empowerment and female anger. As expressed not only through her words and her music, but also through her stage costumes, which make tremendous fun of caricaturing ridiculous expectations of feminine body image. The best example yet being when she played Glastonbury this summer in a Madonna-esque conical corset, modelled on the dome of Sheffield’s Meadowhall shopping centre.

We can be grateful that Taylor has gotten her second chance. Not only because she’s great and because Prioritise Pleasure is great, but because righteous reinvention – from Bowie to Fleetwood Mac, from Carole King to Kylie – is one of the greatest stories pop music has to tell. The annals of the Mercury Prize already has a few – from Primal Scream with Screamadelica in 1992 (washed-up stoner rock’n’rollers become acid house kings) to Elbow in 2008 with The Seldom Seen Kid (post-Britpop also-rans become arena-filling national treasures). It could use another perhaps more than ever right now.

In an industry of sharp elbows, “new music” has practically become its own annoyingly nebulous genre, shallowly fixated on youth and image, dismissive of things like experience, perspective, development and innate talent which, for some, may perhaps just take longer than others to find its truest form.

The casual ageism Taylor often finds herself having to bat against with Self Esteem tells its own depressing story. But bat against it she does, and with the fierceness of a seasoned pro. Earlier this year, at 35, Taylor became preposterously one of the oldest artists to ever be nominated as Best New Artist at the Brit awards.

“In an industry obsessed with the youth of women,” she tweeted, “I’m galvanised as f**k by this.” Here’s hoping a Mercury Prize win will galvanize her further still.

The 2022 Mercury Prize ceremony is on Thursday, September 8 with live coverage on BBC TV and radio; mercuryprize.com

Malcolm Jack  is a freelance journalist

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available from the App Store or Google Play.

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