Back in the day, Lemon Jelly could do no wrong. The music of the duo of Fred Deakin and Nick Franglen feels more relevant than ever. Their syrupy mid-tempo dance-pop style had thick globs of melody and even some heart stuffed in their albums. It’s the kind of confection that is very much a product of the early 2000s but also is the kind of niche pop joy that is coveted by pop critics and audiophiles alike. One Mercury Music Prize nomination and three albums in, the band all but broke up, going their separate ways after their extraordinary deep dive into their record collections that was the propulsive, surprisingly-aggressive swan song ’65-’95 in 2005.
Since the group’s reign, founding member Fred Deakin went on to drop a litany of beloved mixes (like 2008’s Nu Balearica), create a short-lived band called Flashman, and then, in May of 2019, created a Kickstarter for his new project, The Lasters. The love of Deakin and his work was so much that he ended up getting over three times as much as he originally requested. It proves that no matter how many years away he was from Lemon Jelly, the group’s legacy truly lived on in the hearts of his fans.
The setup for The Lasters is ambitious. It’s a pop-song story-cycle about the “last family” on Earth, wherein a man (who would go on to lead a faction called the Luddites) and a woman (who lead the opposing Technologists) had a daughter, this album marking her journey as she finds out about her past. Her story is told through spoken-word interludes and dialogue interspersed between sung passages of big pop songs, most of them handled by Abi Sinclair, playing the daughter and singing her inner-monologue.
So what does the resulting project sound like? An absolutely lovely and completely bland set of pop songs.
“I had to write myself some proper song lyrics for the first time,” Deakin notes in his Kickstarter writeup, and it shows. Several songs conclude with certain characters singing their song’s title over and over ad nausea — you will certainly not forget which song is called “I Remember” and which one is called “Come to Me”, rest assured. While different characters tell different songs, we truly aren’t invested in any of them, which is why the album’s conceit gets old very quickly. Not helping matters either is Deakin making his first-ever attempts at getting in front of the mic, his strained voiced proving to be a tough fit for the other vocalists he so loving lined up for this project.
Deakin claims to have been inspired by the Who’s Quadrophenia and Harry Nilsson’s The Point, but in truth, The Lasters shares the most musical and thematic DNA with the Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. The concept is loose, narrative elements are certainly there, but the story itself is best “casually absorbed” instead of being forced upon you. “There’s a draft of this album which incorporates a lot more explanation and dialogue,” Deakin notes, “but in the end, I decided to strip the spoken word element right back to the bare minimum and put the music at the front of the project, where it rightfully belongs.” Thank gods for that.
Overall, had Deakin cut the forced, clichéd dialogue interludes themselves, the album would have a more natural flow, rollicking around in its myriad musical styles with a sense of fun instead of taking itself so seriously. Unlike say Yoshimi or even Green Day’s American Idiot, The Lasters‘ musical palette is so locked into the same tempo and style it actually avoids true and proper cohesion as an album. While “I Remember”, “Just Our Best”, and the seven-minute “The End of the World” all have a laid-back peak-era Flaming Lips energy to their mid-tempo amblings, songs like “Rush” and “You Never Know” shimmer with an effervescent B-52’s boogie, all shimmering guitars and tight rhythm sections. They’re fun numbers, but putting the record on shuffle wouldn’t affect your listening experience as much as Deakin would think.
“Through the Veil” is lead by synths straight out of a Final Fantasy level theme, adding in a new bit of texture to the proceedings, but overall, The Lasters is driven by nothing more than the notion that pleasant pop-rock is the best way to tell this story. While Deakin isn’t wrong that pop songs are great at communicating tight bits of theme, he falters most in the execution of this entire concept. Like styles bleed together to create a blur of a listening experience wherein no one song stands out, and all end up in varying stages of head-bobbing agreement. There’s no risk, and no dares, no bottoming out nor true consequences; it’s just a pleasant little riff of a record. While there is a room in this world for records of this ilk, most of the time, listeners are treated to songs that could use more careful refinement. Could “I Remember” have been 3:30 long instead a full, needlessly-drawn-out five minutes without losing any effect? The answer is yes.
As such, Fred Deakin’s The Lasters is a clear passion project, but one where the heart he put into it doesn’t necessarily translate as an especially gripping or essential listen. Having worked in genre-mixing dance and electronic music for so long, the switch to writing amiable pop-rock, while seemingly well-suited for a man of his background, is something that will only work if the resulting material is sharply and concisely crafted. That’s doubly so if you’re attempting a rock-opera of any measure. Heck, even his beloved inspiration the Who played around with multi-song stories with the “Rael” numbers from 1967’s The Who Sell Out before finally diving into a long-form narrative with 1969’s Tommy. They essentially workshopped themselves right in front of their listeners and ended up delivering a masterpiece in kind.
“This is happening!” Abi Sinclair exclaims with Disney-sitcom enthusiasm during the interlude “Goodbye Father”, where her generic robotic companion helps her escape her dad carrying a generic laser as she flies out in a generic spaceship to what will no doubt be a generic destination. The Lasters is a lovely, passable listen, but without any sort of refinement, real arc, or anything truly significant to say, its legacy won’t be a “Lasting” one.