Dom Reviews: “Moral Panic” by Nothing But Thieves (2020)

“Moral Panic” album art courtesy of nbthieves.com

Nothing But Thieves are a five-piece, UK-based rock band. Their self-titled debut album, released in 2015, was immediately met with popularity thanks to a handful of songs that went viral. These tracks included “If I Get High,” “Trip Switch,” and “Wake Up Call.” Since then, they’ve released two full-length albums, an EP, and a handful of covers all while touring relentlessly. Suffice to say, the band has been busy.

For years, NBT has been consistently putting out top-notch music with a sound that is both distinct and widely appealing. Their work tends to be bold, lyrically deep, and strangely cathartic as a listening experience. It’s a bit difficult to box them into a single genre, but to quote their Spotify bio, NBT “make[s] passionate, guitar-based rock that balances indie artfulness with a pop sensibility.”

The group’s strengths are all the more bolstered by frontman Conor Mason who, in my opinion, is one of the greatest vocalists alive today. Combine that with stellar performances from every member of the band and you have a group that has seen great success but not enough recognition.

I still strongly consider their 2017 sophomore album Broken Machine to be one of the greatest rock records of the past decade. It’s one of my personal favorite albums of all time. If you haven’t listened to it yet, it’s a must. If it wasn’t obvious thus far, I’m a huge fan of their work.

The band’s latest project, Moral Panic, sees the band pushing their sound in interesting new directions on certain tracks. Thematically, it may just be the best album to encapsulate the year of 2020 and the emotional distress so many people have felt. I certainly don’t see its lyrical themes getting any less relevant in the future either.

Track by Track 

“Unperson” kicks off the album with a punch to the face. It’s pure, adrenaline-filled noise-rock with an ethereal bridge to contrast the wall of raging guitars and electronics in the chorus.

I’ll admit that this one took a few listens to click for me personally. Its abrasiveness begs to be listened to at high volumes. The chorus is huge and makes you want to headbang and dance at the same time thanks to the drum work. Lyrically, it immediately introduces some key themes. “Unperson” is about losing one’s identity in our technology-obsessed society, so much so that we feel like “clones.” One of my favorite lyrics on this album shows up here when Mason screams “My computer gets sad without me,” illustrating a reliance on technology. This track acts as an angry awakening as to how emotionally numb we’ve become as humans.

“Is Everybody Going Crazy?” is one of my absolute favorites and was my most-streamed song of the entire year. I’m going to assume that the main reason why I love this song so much is because of the timing of its release. It dropped as COVID-19 was first ramping up in the United States and the lyrical content just happened to be too damn relatable. I can vividly remember walking around a grocery store for the first time since the virus hit while listening to this song on repeat. It’s the perfect apocalyptic tune. To this day, I listen to this song relentlessly. It’s one of the catchiest songs I’ve heard in the past year and has everything one could ask for in a Nothing But Thieves song: great vocals, a sing-along chorus, standout guitars, a fantastic drum sound, and a deep bouncing bass. I love the instrumental break in the bridge and how the synths become more apparent in the final chorus. It makes the track feel way bigger than when it begins, rewarding the listener with every play.

Photo Courtesy of creativecommons.org
Photo Courtesy of creativecommons.org

“Moral Panic” takes a moment to slow things down from the excitement of the first two tracks before breaking into an ‘80s inspired, piano-heavy tune; You certainly won’t see the beat switch coming on first listen, which gives the track some charm. It begins with a soft electronic piano, some electronic drums, and Mason’s range on display as he shifts from a loud singing to a soft falsetto. Then, the bass introduces a new tempo and the drums get kicked up a notch. However, the track feels like the band punching below their weight. It’s not a bad song, it’s just hard to follow up the last two tracks. This style is new territory for them and you can tell. Lyrically, the song is about climate change and guitarist Joe-Langridge Brown’s penmanship is as sharp as ever on the chorus: “Moral panic is setting in. Terror fever. It’s too late to begin.” The song attacks governmental leaders and their inaction against climate change in a lyrically satisfying way.

“Real Love Song” is, well, a love song. However, it’s not the type of love song that’ll make you roll your eyes. It’s definitely more self-aware than most love songs, and that’s evident right from the title. Just take the lyrics on the bridge as an example: “This is a love song, so what? Did it slide into your heart? I guess not. I still want your love a whole lot. Have you heard a better song? I hope not.” With references to Nick Cave and wanting to “tear off your skin to the bone” over the emotions the speaker is feeling, it’s a genuinely well-written track. Instrumentally, it’s a huge, arena-rock song reminiscent of The Killers. It has quite the memorable chorus as Mason yells “It won’t go away” and the song’s signature guitar riff fills the listener’s ears. The bassy synths, piano, and use of strings make this song feel grand and quite cinematic. It’s one of the songs I’m most looking forward to hearing live and shouting the words with other fans. It doesn’t take a ton of risks on its own, but it’s one of the anchors that hold this record down in a positive way.

“Phobia”, on the other hand, takes many risks. Unlike the track “Moral Panic”, its experimentation immensely pays off and it’s one of the band’s most uniquely crafted tracks. The song kicks off with a strong Billie Eilish influence featuring hushed vocals and a beat reminiscent of her hit “Bury A Friend”. The warped electronics (which are my favorite part of the song) and ghostly synths in the background combined with plucked guitars create a sinister and dark atmosphere. The track is split into three distinct sections. After the subdued first part of the song, stabbing guitars, drums, and bass enter the mix and Mason’s vocals turn almost drunken in the second section. The guitars in this section are especially sinister and grimy, adding once again to the dark atmosphere. Then, the track increases tempo and the mix opens up in the final third of the song. Mason’s vocals are now panicked and the instruments roar to life in the song’s finale. It’s a genuine magic trick of a song. The evolution of Mason’s vocal performance feels like watching a man descend into madness as the lyrics talk about hating the internet and losing all feeling. “Phobia” is a curveball of a track and one of the most interesting and creative songs the band has ever produced.

“This Feels Like the End” is an uptempo rock banger reminiscent of the band’s other hit “Amsterdam”. While I don’t think it reaches the levels of “Amsterdam,” the song has a few tricks up its sleeve. The most notable of which is the spoken word section in the bridge. It features a fake speech from a newscaster who seemingly goes off the rails. It’s also here where the instrumentation reaches its climax and the guitar riffs go nuts. The lyrics of both the speech and the rest of the track hit way too close to home, especially in the midst of the pandemic and political turmoil in America. I also like that the track opens with electronic drums before bursting into acoustic drums for the chorus, giving the transition a greater weight. I’d place this track just above “Moral Panic” if I had to rank them, but it suffers the same downfall of not being as amazing as I would expect from the band. Lyrically, however, it does a great job of holding a mirror up to society and wondering how we got here.

Photo Courtesy of creativecommons.org
Photo Courtesy of creativecommons.org

“Free If We Want It” has a strong Tom Petty influence with its soft rock approach. This track has one of Mason’s best vocal performances on it and is one of the tracks I show people when I want to assert how great of a singer he is. Mood-wise, this track offers a moment of solace, peace, and optimism on this primarily dark album. “Free If We Want It” feels like a warm hug after the last track’s bleak painting of the present. This song is pure bliss and it’s hard to imagine the album without it. 

“Impossible” is a heart-wrenching rock ballad complete with strings, soaring vocals, and a sing-along chorus. It’s easily in my top three of the album and I immediately fell in love on the first listen. Its lyrics struck a deep chord with me and it often reminds me of my significant other. I really love the moment of calm before the second verse kicks into gear with its soft guitars and drum beat reminiscent of their song “Soda”. Also, if you get the chance to listen to the orchestral version of this song, it’s easily one of the most beautiful things I’ve heard in a long time. A simply gorgeous song that I could see anyone fall in love with. 

What follows is easily the weakest song on Moral Panic: “There Was Sun”. I definitely appreciate most of the experimentation the band did on this album, but “There Was Sun” is a bit of a misstep. I’ll be honest – this one did grow on me quite a bit, but it still remains one of the more forgettable songs in their discography. It’s easily their most pop-sounding song to date. That isn’t inherently bad on its own, it just doesn’t really fit well in their discography, even on an album where they are taking creative risks. Mason’s vocals on the first verse are great and fit really well in the mix and with the shiny instrumentation, but the chorus is extremely forgettable and the song is over before anything great happens. There is an instrumental break in the bridge that ramps things up slightly, but by then it’s too little too late. I think the main problem I have with this song is that it feels too manufactured. It sounds like I’m listening to a solo project, not Nothing But Thieves. Overall, I’m disappointed in this track.

Photo courtesy of musicweek.com
Photo courtesy of musicweek.com

Luckily, this lull in the tracklist is saved by a great transition into the heavy “Can You Afford to Be An Individual?” It’s the band’s most politically charged tune to date. In it, they discuss political divisiveness, the MAGA agenda, toxic masculinity, and cancel culture. It starts with a cascading synth riff before a pounding drum beat comes in. The listener is then punched in the face with heavy riffs and a mean, no-nonsense vocal delivery from Mason with some impressive vocal hooks before the middle section of the song. It’s here where we get the title of the song repeated in a distorted fashion over and over before the song explodes into arguably the most exciting moment on the record. Blistering fast guitar riffs take over the song proving once again that the guitar work of this band will always be on point. In the final section of the song, Mason’s vocal delivery grows increasingly intense to the point where you’d swear you’re listening to a Rage Against the Machine song. All of this while the intensity of background vocals, drum hits, and guitar strums rises. If the first half of the song didn’t get you pumped up, the last half surely will. It’s the most intense vocals I’ve ever heard from Mason and I can’t help but feel the energy and anger he is putting into this song. This song definitely came from a place of darkness and frustration that I can’t help but relate to. This one always gets my heart racing and it’s definitely in my top three along with “IEGC?” and “Impossible”.

“Before We Drift Away” finishes off the album with probably the most appropriate sounding finish to an album I can think of. It’s very cinematic with its use of strings and has a huge sing-along moment at the end of the song. The guitars in this song, especially in the first half, are absolutely beautiful. They’re super soft and dreamy to match Mason’s soft vocals. The first half of the song feels like you’re floating down a creek in the forest at night. It’s sung beautifully and offers a moment of bliss before the satisfying climax of the song. The strings in this song are super memorable and catchy to boot. It’s the type of ending to an album that makes you think about the album you’ve just listened to. It leaves you satisfied, yet wanting more. It’s an album you can’t help but put on again shortly after. 

Photo courtesy of nosalive.com
Photo courtesy of nosalive.com

Final Verdict

I would place Nothing But Thieves’ third studio album just above their self-titled album, yet behind Broken Machine. I really appreciated the risks they took, but they didn’t always perfectly pan out. Most of my critiques of this record were because of the high standard I hold this band to. However, the band continues to prove that they are a force to be reckoned with. Whether it’s through amazing vocals, impressive guitar work, or poetic lyricism, Nothing But Thieves delivers a dark yet relatable album that is sure to hit really close to home in these times of isolation and division. 

Rating Scale:

0 – 4 = Negative feeling toward the record

5 = Middle-of-the-road

6 – 10 = Positive feeling toward the record

Final Rating: 8.4/10