Adding curlicues and complexities to popular song forms, the London outfit’s anticipated debut is big and clever
The Last Dinner Party have not been known, over the past year or so, for reticence. And now, to join the Lodnon outfit’s well-stocked wardrobe, bulging book of press cuttings and fast-filling trophy cabinet, they’ve made Prelude To Ecstasy, an album which sounds huge, with an ornate flamboyance decorating pop hooks from the top drawer (of the dressing up box). How many other debut albums open with a full-on overture? This one starts with a lavish orchestral confection, equal parts Gershwin and Shostakovich, with a little hint of golden-age Hollywood glamour. The album’s title is probably not a reference to Steely Dan’s 1973 classic Countdown To Ecstasy, but in some ways The Last Dinner Party resemble Becker and Fagen’s sophistirock outfit, adding curlicues and complexities to popular song forms – although on evidence to date it’s clear the former would be more fun to hang out with in the studio.
Sonically, this album is varied but invariably bold, gesturing camply towards a raft of classic pop styles. Burn Alive is blousy panto goth, The Feminine Urge is pitched on the sturdiest of Spector drum patterns, and Caesar On The TV Screen is blasted epic glam a la Marc Almond and its late 60s soul-pop shuffle could have served Amy Winehouse well (not to mention some gratuitous but delicious timpani rolls). Sinner starts with an insistent piano which Aurora Nishevsky should really perform with a stick-on Ron Mael ‘tache, so readily does it evoke vintage Sparks, but blossoms into a controlled fruitiness with the flavour of Roxy Music’s late – and under-rated – albums. There’s a light Cardigans slinkiness to My Lady of Mercy, which suddenly bursts into a Broadway stoner metal chorus – quite fittingly, as the Cardigans were always unabashed Sabbath heads./p>
In a blizzard of reference points, the band always sound cohesive, not just a list of educated nods, the music impeccably arranged and with true depth to the writing. Take On Our Side, with a tinkling piano, slow stately chords, and a high, yearning vocal line that isn’t far from the Coldplay of Fix You, but there are definite differences. Firstly, Coldplay don’t tend to end an epic ballad with an 80-second ambient hug sounding ike a windchime being sucked down a cloud tunnel, but also, whereas Chris Martin’s lyrics are almost pathologically generic, where every stone is accompanied by a bone, and anything cold is simultaneously old, this album is incredibly well read, and wears its learning as lightly as the lace frill around a flouncy cuff. Literary and classical allusions are tossed in without smug fanfare. When a song claims of the titular Beautiful Boy that “he launches ships”, we think of Marlowe’s Helen of Troy; when The Feminine Urge proclaims “I am dark red liver stretched out on a rock” the image of Prometheus is raised; and Caesar On A TV Screen’s “When I was a child, I never felt like a child, I felt like an emperor” must have been copped from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthian Girl Bosses.
The lyrics are consistently port-rich in allusion and emotional drama. Grab words from across the album and you’ll find lust, envy, pray, sin, altar, lust (again) – it’s basically The Best Catholic Guilt Album In The World… Ever! But there is great humour in the writing too, the offhand wit of the playfully bookish. When Burn Alive assures us “there is candlewax melting in my veins” it’s a bohemian thirst trap for sixth-formers existing on a diet of snakebite and Brontë, whereas the wryly bleak yet urbane statement “I’m falling like the leaves in Leningrad” is part Kate Bush, part Mark Corrigan.
Admittedly, Portrait Of A Dead Girl might have been better served by a rawer recording more in line with the band’s celebrated live shows than the frilly pomp of this version, and one too many slightly blustery guitar solos might have been shoehorned in, but widescreen ambitions should never be criticised, and as Prelude To Ecstasy ends with Mirror, a Cheryl Cole torch song with Nick Cave intensity and Bond-theme bombast, you have to conclude that this album is big, and it is clever.