I am a blank slate, an empty vessel. I am a critic looking only at the text, attempting to wrangle with what is in front me, the art in its purest form. I am ignoring the noise, the hype, the backlash, the response to the backlash, etc. I am here to listen, and listen only, to the debut album from London, five-piece rock band The Last Dinner Party. If I did not so strictly adhere to my ruthless standards set down for myself, I would be forced to reckon with the massive popularity of their debut single “Nothing Matters,” which, released just last April, has amassed over 30 million plays on Spotify. I would simply have to wonder how they were signed to Island Records prior to releasing this debut single. I might even have to bring up their tour supporting Hozier, their appearance on Later… with Jools Holland, or the fact that their record Prelude To Ecstasy was produced by famed British producer James Ford, whose recent collaborators include Blur, Arctic Monkeys and Kylie Minogue. But none of this is pertinent to me, the blank slate.
What is of note is, of course, the music itself, and Prelude To Ecstasy is nothing if not an album whose music offers a lot to unpack. The Last Dinner Party—made up of Abigail Morris, Lizzie Mayland, Emily Roberts, Georgia Davies and Aurora Nishevci—are, first and foremost, pure maximalists. The gothic grandeur of Prelude To Ecstasy is apparent in everything from the lavish portrait of its cover to the nearly two-minute overture which begins the record. They are a group of young women unafraid to play to the cheap seats, embracing bombast and opulence over cool detachment. It’s refreshing, in a way, to see this theater-kid ambition made so plain so early in a career, without the safety-net of experience.
When it works, it can be pretty thrilling. A song like “The Feminine Urge” walks the line between broadway showstopper and genuine pop banger while somehow sticking the landing on a chorus that begins with the line, “I am a dark red liver stretched out on the rock. All the poison, I convert it and I turn it to love.” Elsewhere, “Sinner” brings to mind similarly raucous, earnest rockers Arcade Fire and their Funeral-era commitment to following every idea to its breaking point (and sometime beyond). When it falls flat, it can most often be blamed on too many ideas rather than not enough. Almost every one of these 12 songs contain at least one drastic turn at some point during their runtime, and while these stops and starts can be inspired when deployed sparingly, at a certain point the plot simply becomes too slippery to hold. Too much of a good thing is a theme that holds true throughout the record. One momentous crescendo can be exhilarating (see “Caesar on a TV Screen”) but earning that explosive finale again and again is a tall task, one the album does not always live up to.
But again, these are signs of ambition more than they are abject failure. These are young people putting all on the line, much preferred over jaded indifference. Sure, there are moments when their reach exceed their grasp, where lyrics like “I die for you, no questions asked” and “I’m just a mirror, I don’t exist without your gaze” elicit a cringe or two, where their theater-troupe melodrama of it all becomes just a little insufferable, but for those who lock in with what The Last Dinner Party are doing, Prelude To Ecstasy has a chance to be a truly affecting and exciting debut, to the point where everything else is moot.
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