Three nights in the world of Self Esteem at the Albert Hall in Manchester

by Lowri Jones

The artist Self Esteem has been on an upward trajectory since the release of her second album „Prioritise Pleasure“ in the summer of 2021, with her fanbase and tour venues growing at a consistent and undeniable rate. It therefore wasn’t a surprise to learn that Self Esteem is the first artist to sell out three nights at Manchester’s iconic Albert Hall – her self-proclaimed ‘Manchester residency’. If anything, the restored listed chapel with its stained-glass windows and large organ behind the stage is a perfect venue, as fans and critics alike have repeatedly compared Self Esteem shows to religious experiences. It’s easy to see how the communal catharsis and sense of release at a Self Esteem show is comparable to a religious experience; with her wit, humour and warmth Rebecca Lucy Taylor AKA Self Esteem makes a charismatic preacher. (Although I haven’t ever attended a church service that includes a congregation singing ‘shave my pussy (that’s just for me)’ in cheery unison.)

As the cult status of Self Esteem has snowballed over the past two years, it finally feels as if Taylor’s long-standing artistic and professional ambition is being mirrored by the scale of her latest tour. Taylor’s lyrics about sexuality, societal expectations for women and mental health have strongly resonated with women and queer people alike, and the number of people wanting to see a Self Esteem show has skyrocketed. Before it even begins, the ‘I Tour This All The Time’ tour (nodding to the anthemic ‘I Do This All The Time’ and, well, the fact that Self Esteem have been pretty much non-stop touring since the album release) was fully sold out. Whereas some artists’ performances may suffer after such a long time on the road, especially when factoring in other work commitments (during this period, Taylor has composed music for the play Prima Facie and taken on acting roles), this cannot be said of Self Esteem’s Manchester residency taking place the 1st, 18th and 22nd of March. In fact, it’s rather the opposite. The most ambitious staging, costuming and choreography of Self Esteem to date see Taylor and her bandmates not only at their peak in terms of performance, but also appearing to have more fun than ever on stage. 

From the moment the band appear on stage, descending a central white staircase in stylishly oversized suits – a slight hint of the David Byrne about them – to perform title track „Prioritise Pleasure“, Taylor and co. have the audience in the palm of their leather gloved hands. The restored chapel venue provides flawless acoustics for the packed crowd loudly singing along to Taylor’s checklist for a pleasurable life (unfollowing people, keeping busy, sexting – solid advice from the agony aunt of pop). It’s testament to Taylor’s decades of performing both solo and in the band Slow Club that she can artfully build the crowd before quietening them to end the song acapella with backing singers/dancers Marged Sion, Levi Heaton and Serephina Simone. The tender moment as the women are gently embraced atop the white staircase, bathed in soft white spotlight, is angelic in its simplicity.  

However, the angelic connotations don’t last long as four songs in, Taylor exits the stage while her band remain and slowly shed their oversized suits, revealing red morph suits and harnesses underneath. Despite donning red gimp-style masks there is a contrast between the kink related costumes and the apparent boredom displayed by the band while undressing; it’s signalled to the audience that this is not an act of voyeurism on our part. The donning of fetish wear is purely for the band’s own pleasure, with the presence of the audience being inconsequential – a full embodiment of Self Esteem’s lyrical manifesto. As the band finish their costume change, Taylor returns to the stage also dressed in red, wearing a rigid plastic torso with breasts and a cowboy hat: part stage costume, part performance art. Performance art that is evident throughout the show as Taylor and her backing singers/dancers expertly blend vocals, contemporary dance choreography, and a healthy dollop of musical theatre (most evident when backing singer Levi improvises a tap dance to keep the audience’s attention on the stage during a medical emergency in the crowd).  

The second act of the show begins with the stage drenched in red light as instrumental music kicks in and is overlaid with a direct quote from the character Catherine Cawood from the British television drama „Happy Valley“. The interlude teasingly ramps up and transitions into a new unreleased song called „Mother“, featuring the opening line ‘I am not your mother / I am not your mum’ – a presumed scathing truism to an immature romantic partner. (Although, when considering the queer use of the word ‘mother’, Taylor is truly Mother at this moment in the show.) While the pulsing electronic drumbeat may seem like a departure from the „Prioritise Pleasure“ album, hinting that dance music may provide a larger influence on Taylor’s next record, the seamless transition into „How Can I Help You“ reminds us that Taylor’s long-time love of drumming and beat making has always been fundamental to her music. A second new song called „Love Second“ also hints at the next direction of Self Esteem’s music, as Taylor’s vocals are playfully autotuned while singing the already iconic chorus ‘Let me be gorgeous in peace’. Both new songs sound like fresh ground for Self Esteem while showcasing Taylor’s signature tongue in cheek wit and unapologetic confidence.  

A third and final costume change ushered in the final act of the show, as Taylor returned to the stage in a black suit, with purposefully smudged Joker-esque makeup, to perform ‘John Elton’ solo on electric guitar. The slower tempo acted as a breather for the crowd before the intense back-to-back singalongs that close out the main set, culminating in a rousing rendition of „I Do This All The Time“. The half sung, half spoken word mantra has widely resonated with women since its single release and standing in a largely female crowd singing ‘Don’t be intimidated by all the babies they have / Don’t be embarrassed that all you’ve had is fun’ feels like a group therapy session. 

The shared emotions continue into the three-song encore, which ends with Taylor and her singers and band (Sophie Galpin and Mike Park) lined up at the front of the stage after closer „Still Reigning“, bowing in unison to rapturous applause. The performers looked as genuinely grateful and awestruck as every person in the audience. And how else to end an evening of oozing confidence, cathartic release, and freedom than for the camp banger „This Is My Life“ by Shirley Bassey to blast out across the venue. As Taylor and co. giddily conga line off the stage, the audience both on the floor and up on the balcony continue to dance joyfully and unapologetically. These may be our own lives, but we’re all just living them in Self Esteem’s world.

Photos © Lowri Jones