Album Review: The Last Dinner Party, ‘Prelude to Ecstasy’

The Last Dinner Party understand the implications of suddenly being heralded as one of the world’s most exciting young bands. Following the success of their debut single, ‘Nothing Matters’, last April, the group – vocalist Abigail Morris, guitarists Lizzie Mayland and Emily Roberts, bassist Georgia Davies, and keyboardist Aurora Nischevi  – spent the rest of 2023 playing sold-out headline shows around Europe and the US and taking their time to roll out their debut album, sharing five singles ahead of its release. They began 2024 as the recipients of both the Brits Rising Star and the BBC Sound of 2024 awards, which means they’ve also been accused of being an “industry plant” by people who don’t quite grasp just how swift and powerful the UK hype machine is. Morris has compared it to “going in a car really fast and not being in charge of the steering wheel,” but the group makes an effort to stay grounded by focusing on the process of writing, playing, and rehearsing that’s led them this far.

The marvelous thing about Prelude to Ecstasy isn’t the audience it’s already reached as a debut album, but the commitment to craft and world-building that’s apparent as soon as you press play. The whole thing starts with an orchestral overture, signaling the sort of theatrical bombast and ambition that bands – especially “post-punk” bands that grow weary of the descriptor – don’t embrace until much later in their discography. As a group that formed just before the pandemic, they’ve had to take the fundamentally uncool path of taking themselves seriously, fleshing out songs, and establishing a strong visual identity before transferring any of their ideas to the stage. Now that it’s become a live spectacle, their vision feels clearly defined yet fluid, just as the dress codes they set for their gigs – Folk Horror, Velvet Goldmine, A Night at the Opera – are meant to foster community and self-expression rather than adherence to any particular aesthetic. The Last Dinner Party, who call the record “an archeology of ourselves,” may like doing things the old-fashioned way, but the assemblage of historical fashion feels fitted to the intensity of the present moment, not a retread of the past.

Intentional as it may be, this approach is also the inevitable product of a group who spent their formative years on a platform that creatively threaded the worlds of Sofia Coppola and Virginia Woolf, where scrolling rendered Mr. Darcy and Effie Stonem part of the same universe and Hozier could be tagged under a quote from The Secret History. Their cultural influences come through in the music, but you don’t need to have any nostalgia for the age of Tumblr to appreciate what the band is doing on a song like ‘My Lady of Mercy’, which starts out as a fiery piece of goth pop before exploding operatically in scale, then landing on a sludgy outro. The band’s melodic sensibilities are undeniable, and even the songs that aren’t singles – ‘The Feminine Urge’, ‘Mirror’ – boast big, catchy choruses; but it’s the way they build, embellish, and offset their parts that makes an impact. ‘Nothing Matters’ began as a ballad rather than a driving baroque pop song, while ‘On Your Side’, one of a couple actual ballads, ends with synths that swell into the ether, an improvised coda courtesy of producer James Ford.

The Last Dinner Party don’t shy away from polished, extravagant production, which marks even mellower, seemingly off-the-cuff moments like ‘Ghuja’, a song written in Nishevci’s mother tongue of Albanian that also laments her distance from it. The album’s gorgeous, flamboyant qualities don’t detract from the unbridled emotion and complexity at its core, and although I’m curious how ‘Portrait of a Dead Girl’ would sound with a few layers stripped out, the maximalism works because of how desire, envy, shame, and deep, deep yearning are all entwined in the band’s universe. The music earns its dramatic flair thanks to the strength of the songwriting, but also because it always stands in the door of more than one of these shades of feeling, and it veers into fantasy as part of a confession, never masquerading as such. A single line might be direct (“I will fuck you like nothing matters”) or subtly ambivalent (“Pray for me on your knees”), but sung in unison, it feels sincere. As a whole, Prelude to Ecstasy doesn’t feel like a lofty concept album, but an honest extension of themselves.

Still, it’s all about performance, which is really the thematic heart of the album. A lot of it’s tied up with gender: between ‘Caesar on a TV Screen’ and ‘The Feminine Urge’, Morris juggles the natural and rather private tendency “to nurture the wounds my mother held” with the imagined power and glory of projecting your life as an emperor. ‘Beautiful Boy’ longs for a different facet of male privilege, based on a friend of the singer’s and therefore treated with a different kind of earnest intimacy. But the framing of the album makes it feel self-aware, not least because it’s bookended by two extremely sobering moments: “I am not the girl I set out to be/ Let me make my grief a commodity,” Morris sings on ‘Burn Alive’, a sentiment she returns to on closer ‘Mirror’. But exposure – being seen for entertainment – is also a matter of survival, the Last Dinner Party suggest, so they’re giving it their all. They’re not afraid to be indulgent, and having arrived with a fully-realized sound and a distinct formula, they can now afford to mess it up a little; there’s a lot more beauty and bliss snuck into the chaos.

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