In an alternate universe, The Last Dinner Party’s debut album would serve as the soundtrack to Yorgos Lanthimos’ Oscars contender Poor Things. It’s not just that ‘Prelude To Ecstasy’ and the Emma Stone-starring movie are equally thrilling and theatrical, nor that the record’s opening track ‘Prelude’ – an orchestral instrumental – shivers with the same daring spirit as the film. Both explore female sexuality, desire and obsession and how they intertwine with the shame foisted upon us by external forces, but while Bella Baxter liberates herself with an eye-opening, globetrotting adventure, The Last Dinner Party do so with an album that charts a course of self-discovery via baroque-flavoured anthems.
The London-based five-piece’s voyage ties together the modern and the classical, the latter largely aided by the religious symbolism embedded in many of the songs’ lyrics. On the undulating ‘My Lady Of Mercy’, they compare a crush to the titular patron saint, who is often depicted with figures seeking protection under her open cloak and with a golden halo shining glorious, gorgeous light down on her. For The Last Dinner Party, though, what they’re looking for is more carnal. “I want to take your picture / Picture me in bed,” Abigail Morris commands. “Under your crucifix / Under your long black hair.” The staccato jaunt of ‘Sinner’, too, puts the band at the meeting point between sex and God, taking the idea that the former is immoral (“I wish I knew you / Before it felt like a sin”) while calling on a lover to “pray for me / Kneel with me” and “cleanse my soul”.
Sometimes, the imagery steers away from the pews and altars but never loses its power and drama. ‘Burn Alive’ ties the band to the stake and sets them ablaze in a bid to capture the intense heat of their feelings in words. ‘Portrait Of A Dead Girl’ continues that five-alarm fire of emotion, Morris mournfully admitting: “I wish you had given me / The courtesy of ripping out my throat.” Later, she admits she’d “die for you no questions asked / If anyone could kill me / It probably would be you” before her bandmates join her in a repeated call to “give me the strength” that feels like a desperate prayer the more you hear it.
Romance is far from the only experience dissected in ‘Prelude To Ecstasy’. On the wild and sprawling ‘Caesar On A TV Screen’, TLDP head to the Roman Empire in their minds on a quest for power that feels just out of reach as a woman. “And just for a second, I could be one of the greats,” Morris narrates what they find. “I’ll be Caesar on a TV screen / Champion of my fate.” On the flip side, though, is something far more humble – a search for roots, heritage and belonging. ‘Gjuha’ forms the spellbinding centrepiece of the album, delivered in Albanian by keyboardist Aurora Nischevci. “My language / Broken / I don’t know how to translate it,” she explains of her relationship with her mother tongue.
Although much of The Last Dinner Party’s debut album courses with the same energetic spirit that immediately made the world pay attention when they released their incendiary debut single ‘Nothing Matters’ – also present here – last year, there are softer moments too. ‘Beautiful Boy’ is laced with a glacial flute line from guitarist Emily Roberts, the rest of the song slowly building around the melancholy melody. ‘On Your Side’, meanwhile, depicts the excruciating nature of heartbreak through a tremulous tear-jerker.
Those latter two tracks are perhaps the more obvious signposts that the ecstasy bottled on this record isn’t just that of the joyous, giddy kind. All the extremities of life are contained here, from hedonistic abandon to earth-shattering heartbreak. “We must experience everything, not just the good, but degradation, horror, sadness,” one character tells Bella Baxter in Poor Things. “This makes us whole; then we can know the world.” With ‘Prelude To Ecstasy’, The Last Dinner Party make an impressive first attempt at helping us do just that.