Review Summary: Nothing but their very best.
Essex rock quintet Nothing But Thieves enjoyed a successful career launch over the past five years. Their self-titled debut was a critical and commercial success in 2015, with frontman Conor Mason’s falsetto vocals proving to be an easy bridge for Muse fans to cross while the band implemented a stylistic blend from other contemporary rock groups, ultimately landing somewhere between the crushing riffs of Royal Blood and the liberated aura of Foals. 2017’s Broken Machine
saw Nothing But Thieves establish more of a unique identity, leaning heavier into the electric guitars while backing off of Mason’s wailing Bellamy impressions in favor of grittier and more straightforward vocal melodies. These moves brought Nothing But Thieves into their own as a group of full-fledged modern rock stars, a title that 2020’s Moral Panic
doesn’t begin to lose grip on in the slightest. Moral Panic
sees Nothing But Thieves spread their wings even further, stretching the outer bounds of their capabilities as a band.
might best be described as pop-rock with a frantic, apocalyptic bend. From the hyper energetic and almost danceable opener ‘Unperson’ onward, it’s clear that Nothing But Thieves are willing to open up their creative arsenal entirely. ‘Unperson’ is a full throttle electro-rock banger, replete with pulsing drum beats, synth blasts, and the ominous verse, “this is not what you think it is…it’s worse” – a line sure to send a shiver up the spine of anyone watching nervously as mankind slowly crumbles under the weight of its own ineptitude. ‘Is Everybody Going Crazy’ kicks down the door by reintroducing the beefy electric guitar riffs that characterized much of Broken Machine
, only to lend them such an insanely infectious chorus that the instrumentation becomes overshadowed. Amid the high octane pop-rocker, Mason slips in a lyrical gem with “in this wounded, sinister place…we've only got each other” which keeps Moral Panic
’s themes of paranoia and isolation healthily afloat. The title track begins with slow, eerie verses of “This is the last day of my life, yours too…All of the children are so anxious, they're on edge / Yeah, it's tense, so tense” before it eventually erupts into a spastic dance-rock; it’s definitely a newer look for Nothing But Thieves, yet it’s also one that they find themselves effortlessly executing to perfection.
As we cross into Moral Panic
’s midsection, Nothing But Thieves only further split open the seams of any rigid expectations in place. ‘Real Love Song’ lacks a true chorus, instead thrusting a mesmerizing keyboard melody into the role – which still manages to shine brilliantly. ‘Phobia’ is the true bedrock of Moral Panic
, however: it’s a song about a deeply flawed individual who is losing all hope, and it’s broken out in three distinct sections, with each one escalating the intensity of the preceding moment. Conor Mason introduces the song from within a breathy R&B fog, with an electronic backbeat reverberating in a fashion akin to hearing your own heartbeat in your ears. As he mutters, “I fucking hate the internet” and “I don’t feel well”, a slightly dystopian air takes shape. By the middle of the song, a series of bitter, cutting electric guitar riffs begin to drive the track’s momentum straight into the territory of all-out heavy rock, with Mason singing in an unmistakably lower register about depression and isolation in what could be perceived as commentary on society’s reliance upon self-medication rather than coming to each other’s aid: “I got some pills, but not some help.” As ‘Phobia’ plunges deeper into the depths of despair, the instrumentation rocks out harder and harder, climaxing in a drum/guitar breakdown, until the final verse-chorus where Conor exclaims – almost screaming – “I'm on a stage and I just can't cope...I could use some healing soon, before I lose all feeling soon.” It’s a whirlwind of a track that will leave you breathless, and certainly counts among the best songs that Nothing But Thieves have ever concocted.
Nothing But Thieves weave in and out of the personal and the political on Moral Panic
, but the emotional common denominator is quite negative. This isn’t an album designed to lift your spirits – it revels in discord, both internally and globally, while counting down on the metaphorical doomsday clock. All too appropriately, the blistering account of personal strife that is ‘Phobia’ is immediately met with ‘This Feels Like The End’, which applies that same sense of hopelessness to the world as we know it. Conor Mason sings of doomscrolling (“We're addicted to the pain / No, we can't look away”) and ever-increasing division (“Categorised and catalogued, passed on and processed / For whatever scheme is next designed to keep us compartmentalised and at each other's god damn throats”), with the chorus consisting of the simple message that “this feels like the end” – a frighteningly relatable mantra in 2020. Structurally, the song feels like a lost Anberlin hit: topical, end times imagery combined with crashing guitar waves and soaring choruses lift the track to epic heights – which is appropriate given the finality of the lyrical content. Moral Panic
admittedly loses some steam with ‘Free If You Want It’, a pleasant ballad cut from the U2 template of generic soft rock. Neither ‘Impossible’ nor ‘There Was Sun’ are among the top half of songs that Nothing But Thieves have written, and although the former has quite the spirited choral refrain (almost Arcade Fire-esque?) and the latter has some very interesting sonic qualities intermixing (synths and plenty of dazzling keyboards), both tracks seem lacking alongside some of the bolder and more daring directions taken on this record.
The penultimate ‘Can You Afford To Be An Individual’ saves the final third of the record from fizzling out. It’s a very hostile and political track which takes aim at the collective status quo, from left to right, with its anger snowballing into an all-out screamed conclusion: “I see you hide behind your altar or your constitution / Oh, you're a walking contradiction in a MAGA-hat”…“But now the liberals aren't liberal, they're just as venomous / And you can't have an opinion unless you're one of us.” As the screaming reaches a fever pitch, Mason alludes to the song’s namesake by pointing out how hyperpolarization robs us of our true identities, labeling and sorting us as “right” or “wrong” without recognizing the vast gray that resides in the middle: “No second chances, you're branded, your kind are dangerous / We're bringing each other down, we're tearing each other down / Can you afford to be an individual?” It’s easily the most vitriolic track on Moral Panic
, and it feels like an essential anchor both thematically and musically. The curtain call “Before We Drift Away” is adrift in a sea of bubbling piano notes and surging orchestral strings that lend it a sense of urgency; it’s a beautiful and befitting conclusion on the heels of the preceding song’s aggression.
By the end of Moral Panic
, a couple things will immediately jump out to any listener. The first takeaway is that this is by far the most energetic album in Nothing But Thieves’ repertoire. The second is that it’s also their most eclectic, with styles ranging from pop/R&B to riff-heavy alternative rock. It’s not a perfect record, as it features a small handful of forgettable tracks and experiments too widely to hone in on a central sound that will please anyone enough to proclaim it a classic. Moral Panic
is, however, an album that truly has something for everyone and brings us that high level of diversity with as much energy and enthusiasm as humanly possible. This is a record that focuses on some weighty topics while also insisting that the end of the world is nigh; yet, it also beckons for us to head bang, dance, and lose ourselves in the moment. It takes a deft hand to carve out such a niche. Moral Panic
is simultaneously the most depressing and fun rock record of 2020, and that’s got to count for something.