Album Walkthrough: Nothing But Thieves break down their new album, Moral Panic
On their third album, the UK group tackles the larger world around them with rage, frustration, anger and a splash of hope.
Nothing But Thieves haven't been afraid to dissect the larger picture through their work. On their self-titled 2015 debut album, the band's frontman Conor Mason merged smatterings of his life - the highlights and the lowlights - through a rich nostalgic lens that brought comparables to early-2000s Coldplay right through to late-90s dance-rock, and on its follow-up - the 2017-released Broken Machine - the group went further, pushing their sound while carving an album reflective of its manic times: "We put our lives all up for sale / We get our truth in the daily mail," and "We’re gonna make ’em build a wall / We’re gonna live like animals," being two heavily-quoted lyrics.
However, their new record Moral Panic is an entirely different league - although you could probably tell that, judged from its album title alone. It's an album that like Broken Machine before it, feels reflective of its surrounding, even if Moral Panic was written months before the world descended into its 2020 rollercoaster. In a time like now - where the world is laden with bigotry and fascism, amongst a once-in-a-century pandemic no less - anything that's not a record drenched in politics feels strange and almost-unneeded, but even despite that, Nothing But Thieves' latest goes beyond.
Over the course of 11 tracks, the UK five-piece dissect the inner workings of the world around them with a charge and energy that feels reflective of its lyricism. It isn't afraid to grapple with the problems that can often divide fanbases (especially in a time like now, where artists are often told to "stick to the music" even when posting as messages as vague as "go vote"), from Is Everybody Going Crazy? - a single that whose title feels reflective of the entire record - right through to This Feels Like The End, which toys with social media tension and the lack of heart that underlays much of the platform's controversies.
"MORAL PANIC has been a tricky process at times. It is, in a lot of ways, a political album, but it was our intention to not make it directly so. The album hinges on what effect the pressures of the modern world and the information age have on us. It's about people," the group said on the record. "The songs fall somewhere between rage and resignation. We are pitted against one another consistently. Our fears are used against us for ad revenue. The modern debate calls for us to assume anyone who disagrees with us on any level holds a view which is completely in opposition to ours. My truth is not your truth, and your truth makes you scum."
As you could probably guess, this backbone to the album fuels its every melody; its every lyric building into a greater sense of cathartic release that defines the record from a purely aesthetic/musical point of view. It's an album that feels more charged than anything else Nothing But Thieves have ever put out, capturing this frenzy of the album's core through higher-energy, wider-ranging instrumentals that continue to pluck from the band's wide-spanning range of influences but in a way that makes it feel all a little more alarming - a natural byproduct, we'd guess, from an album so rich in frustration and rage.
It's a natural progression for Nothing But Thieves, albeit one perhaps rushed by the surroundings in which it was written in. Broken Machine felt like a toe-dip into their brand of political alt-rock, reflective of a changing world that at the time of writing, had elected Donald Trump and voted to leave the EU off a backbone of fake news drenched in fascism and bigotry. An album drenched in similar themes was always something in the band's future pipeline after Broken Machine. Still, with the circumstances in which Moral Panic was written in - no less released in, a year later - it'd be a disservice to release anything that's not rich with Moral Panic's potency.
It's an album that's rich with technicalities both musical and lyrical, brought together with Nothing But Thieves' evolution which quickly is aiding them in blossoming to UK favourites. Now, dive Moral Panic below, alongside a track-by-track walkthrough of the album which dissects its themes and creation one song at a time. Grab the album here.
In classic Nothing But Thieves fashion, we wrote the first song of the album last. The same thing happened on our last album, Broken Machine too. There is something freeing about writing a song with the knowledge that it could open the album, in some senses you know exactly what you're aiming for rather than scrabbling around in the dirt. It was one of those nice moments where Dom came up with the riff (on his birthday, no less) and it just fit so well with what I had in my head for the lyrics. Sounds a bit pretentious when you describe your own song as a 'monster' but not one person has refuted that description after listening to it. So there.
Is Everybody Going Crazy?
Well, you tell me. It certainly seemed that way when we were writing the album. I think the lyrics for the song mostly came after we had the album title Moral Panic and they really ended up being the sum total of the album in general. It's got this paranoid, frantic feeling to me with lots of mood changes. There's a glimpse of hope in it but it's buried. Those synth stabs in the chorus came from messing around in the studio and really lifted the song to a different plane. Long, meandering guitar middle 8 purely because it's our song and we will do what we bloody well please.
The title track and a song I was personally a bit nervous about. In demo form, it felt a little too different to what else was going on the album or in our back catalogue. (Which considering how widespread the soundscape is, is really saying something.) What do I know because I was wrong as it turns out. Again, it came together in the studio and small changes to the sonics here and there really made a difference to the end result. Marginal gains. There's a fairly dramatic tempo change and like the two songs before, 'normal' song structure wasn't really a consideration. Naming the album Moral Panic felt like it gave us free reign in that sense.
Real Love Song
This song was a mission in walking the fine line between irony and being emotionally satisfying. It's very easy to write a cynical song which keeps the audience away with one hand, it's much more difficult to accomplish both goals. This is a song within a song. It ignores the 'Hollywood' cliche version of love songs but uses a different kind of drama. We went away and rented a house outside London for a bit to get a different writing environment which was really useful, it's definitely something we will explore more. 'This is a love song, so what?'
For me, this is one of the coolest and most interesting songs on the album. It has three distinct chapters which mirror the character's journey further into depravity and insanity. Another tempo shift. I feel like I still hear something fresh in this song every time I listen to it, there's a lot of sonic detail. Marilyn Manson would sound great on this song. Didn't think I'd say that when we set out writing this album.
This Feels Like The End
Writing the lyrics to this album was by and large not a pleasurable experience. In the past, lyrics mostly came about due to the situations we were in or random inspiration. This time, we had time at home (for the first time since 2014) to actually decide what the album was going to be about. This meant endless hours of trawling through Twitter and news websites to garner different points of view. Twitter is a fucking cesspit.
The album is about the ever-increasing tension and placed on people and what that pressure does to them. The lyrics to this song were written after I read a dismissive tweet by some scumbag about child migrants being washed ashore, which was a time when I had never felt more hopeless for the human race. They were probably the quickest set I have ever written. Social media needs regulating, by the way.
Free If We Want It
Just to say off the bat, I think this is one of the best songs we've ever written and potentially my favourite. The album in general is quite dense in both the subject matter and how it sounds. There's a lot going on in the production. Normally you'd temper that to make it a better listening experience but considering the album was called Moral Panic, in the most part we decided to leave it that way. The chaos seemed to add to the project. However, if there is some relief on the album, it comes from this portion of it. I'm a huge Tom Petty fan and Free If We Want It has that soft, driving feel to it. I get to pretend to be Mike Cambell for a while. Listening to this track just makes me feel good.
Following on from the last track, this song offers some hope which was necessary for the album and for us. We have always tried to do that throughout our albums, flashes of hope or other contradicting ideas are powerful. In the past, we've stayed away from using strings as too much drama can be off-putting but they felt like they belong in this song. It has a Blur, set closer vibe to me. (Which could well have come from Conor and I being in awe of them at the Isle of Wight Festival a few years ago). I feel like in our home studio we have tried to write this song many times before but never quite pulled it off until now. This one nearly met the same fate until Dom took it home and saved it by changing the chords about. I'm glad one of them has made it.
There Was Sun
Fuck me this song went around the houses. Didn't have a clue what to do with it. I think the email we sent to our producer about the song as the time has the subject heading - 'Help.' As it turns out, we had to change the key, slow it down and add acoustic guitars/Juno. (If you ever get stuck, try that then.) There's a slightly psychedelic nature to this that we really enjoy. Mixed with Abba. The guitar middle 8 solo (?) is a mind fuck to play by the way.
Can You Afford To Be An Individual?
This was the first song we wrote for Moral Panic whilst we were on the bus during one of the numerous Broken Machine tours. It was more of a blueprint than a demo. There was no lyric yet and no song structure at all (you could argue there still isn't, it is kind of hip hop in the way the verses function) but we knew where it was heading. The vocal loop in the middle of the song was a strong reminder at the start of the process to keep experimenting. I think a lot of bands get stagnant during album 3. The last verses of this song are probably my favourite Nothing But Thieves lyrics to date.
Before We Drift Away
One of those songs you write and instinctively know that it will be the album closer. Strings were something we had been messing about with for other songs by this point and the string passage in Before We Drift Away actually came from another demo. I remembered it out the blue so we slowed it down and it gave this song a whole new lease of life. This song has a real mix of moods to it and the last lyric 'I don't want to grow old' has a finality to it that made it the perfect bow out.
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