Album Review: The Last Dinner Party – Prelude To Ecstasy

[Island; 2024]

Bridges! Guitar solos! Costumes! You have got to hand it to Brixton quintet The Last Dinner Party: they are not just going against literally every trend in indie rock of the past decade, but seemingly achieving overnight success while doubling down on that promise. The timing of it feels just about right too: the post-punk revival has increasingly succumbed to machismo chest-beating and, recently, a crop of fresh-faced UK bands – from indie upstarts like Divorce and English Teacher to recent breakouts Wet Leg – home in to more theatrical and tongue-in-cheek elements of pop music. 

The red carpet is all the way rolled out for The Last Dinner Party’s highly-anticipated debut Prelude To Ecstasy to become a landmark affair. They certainly have the ‘prelude’ part of that equation covered. The introductory title track sounds like a heroic score from a big budget MGM musicals from the 50s: woodwinds, big crashing cymbals, glockenspiels, strings… the whole shebang. This is the kind of fireworks we expect from artists opening up their magnum opus, and tells us about the scope of ambition the band intend to accomplish.

Indeed, Prelude To Ecstasy grasps at styles and sensibilities with the fervour of a Winona Ryder shopping spree. In an interview with The Times vocalist Abigail Morris confesses Tumblr was big source of inspiration to mine ideas for the band’s sound and visual presentation. “We’re of the generation where you’d receive a lot of your aesthetic education online. We are made of so many parts because we had access to the entire universe on a f***ing laptop — that uncategorised list of photos and videos, from glam rock to Victoriana.”

The band’s maximalist instincts are somewhat double-edged sword on Prelude To Ecstasy. When it does all click together and they hit that giddy stratosphere, The Last Dinner Party are a thrilling affair. When they swing and whiff, however, their frivolous abundance of ideas tends to overcompensate for somewhat spotty songwriting. Fortunately the former is true on the magnetic single “Caesar on a TV Screen”, which channels Julie Cruise, ABBA and Yvonne Baker in its various different acts. It has one of the best – and certainly already one of the most addictive – choruses written in the year 2024. Their breakthrough hit “Nothing Matters”, alternately, could have gained the band notoriety back in the MySpace-era with its cheeky Lily Allen-hook and nimble, Warpaint-indebted groove.

Oftentimes however, The Last Dinner Party’s chandelier-swinging between genres overshadows what they actually have to say. The lyrics often reference gender roles and destructive relationships, but the intrigue only pierces skin-deep. Morris certainly is an evocative, versatile vocalist – seamlessly switching between theatrical trills and oozing PJ Harvey-like croons – who can paint a picture with words and phrasing. “I am not the girl I set out to be / Let me make my grief a commodity”, she seethes on somnambulistic rocker “Burn Alive” – a scorning prod at our voyeurism towards confessionalism in songwriting.

Rarely do you get the sense of real emotional stakes matching all the grand instrumental fireworks, unfortunately. On “Portrait Of a Dead Girl” – Morris compares her lover to a wolf or a guard dog who would provide affection and safety. But with one wrong one move, the beast would lunge at her. “I wish you had given me the courtesy of ripping out my throat,” she evokes in an angelic but distressed quiver, before steeling herself again: “And I wish that I’d let you have the dignity of letting me go.” It pretty obvious this is an allegory for a relationship turning toxic, but the lyric elicits more confusion than emotional investment: who exactly was chained to whom

It doesn’t help that despite all of the bells and whistles on Prelude To Ecstasy, the playing is clinical and dare-I-say too absorbed in the kind of technical noodling that really does nothing to enrich the arrangements and the songwriting. Sure the playing itself great, often-times even phenomenal from a pure musicianship standpoint, but James Ford’s production doesn’t really enrich the instrumentation from a textural standpoint. The Last Dinner Party could do well to look to one of their more obvious influences, Florence + The Machine: listen how the drums swell and distort, like the rumble of a collapsing mountain, on the “What The Water Gave Me”‘s biggest climax at the three-and-a half minute mark, to name just one of many examples. Prelude To Ecstasy, for the large part, sounds texturally flat and stale, and when you do hear a solo or flourish, if often fails to have any gravitational pull. The album art – which depicts the band framed in a picture on an altar of flowers – feels strangely apt here. It’s as if we’re here to just watch behind a protective veneer, and not engage or connect in any sort of meaningful way.

To The Last Dinner Party’s credit – when they do shatter the glass – they are indeed a resonant and spellbinding affair. “My Lady of Mercy” is another zenith, pitting Roxy Music’s quilled art-rock against a fiery goth-glam explosion, peppered with haunting high-register vocals. “Sinner” offers a playful clash between Sparks and All Saints, but, once again, you wish the production would create enough space for Morris and the rest of her bandmates to drive the stake right into you. Even the thorny and inventive guitar work feels flat, acting as a submissive agent to the vocal harmonies. 

Prelude To Ecstasy, for all intents and purposes, is a really enjoyable pop record, but they are not burning down the mansion with this collection of songs anytime soon. Beyond The Last Dinner Party’s carefully curated, debonair sensibilities – though often enticing and palatable – there are simply not enough great songs (yet) to move the needle. That being said, you clearly sense a band eager to tell a bigger story, even if said story – for now – is veiled behind layers of embroidered velvet and satin. I do hope that in the storm of scrutiny – whether it’s the mushrooming hype surrounding them or those sad sacks accusing them of being industry plants – the band continue to heed the immortal words of one Virginia Woolf: “The eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages.” 

If the flashes of brilliance on Prelude To Ecstasy tell us one thing, however; The Last Dinner Party have all the intangibles to deliver a future classic in the, well, not so distant future. This is the prelude, after all.