Mason’s voice should never be tamed.
Nothing But Thieves lead singer Conor Mason’s voice is so explosive that it often feels unreal. From the release of the British pop-rockers’ 2015 self-titled debut to their tour with acclaimed influences like Muse (and a successful stab at the high notes in a cover of the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind?”), Nothing But Thieves has consistently been made memorable through Mason’s vocals, which sound like the rebellious rocker offspring of fellow Brit vocal powerhouses Adele and Sam Smith. On their second full-length record, Broken Machine, Nothing But Thieves make showcasing Mason’s vast vocal range less of a priority, choosing instead to experiment instrumentally and lyrically.
Thematically, Broken Machine is highly ambitious. Within the record’s 11 tracks, the Essex band discusses religion (“Hell, Yeah,” “I’m Not Made by Design”), politics (“Live Like Animals”) and mental health and addiction (“Get Better,” “Particles”). They are among the few pop rock acts who rarely address romance and relationships, and when Mason does hum for a loved one, like on “Sorry” or “Afterlife,” the heartbreak is still mentioned in relation to one of the topics previously mentioned. Although Nothing But Thieves was certainly motivated to produce meaningful lyrics corresponding with Mason’s commanding vocals, their often overly ambitious attempts at electronic tunes were not foundational enough to support their words, and they instead sometimes overshadowed them.
“Live Like Animals” contains Broken Machine’s most successful lyrics and most confusing arrangement. It hurts to accept that this singer, who probably possesses the most beautiful vibrato in English rock music this year, basically raps the lyrics to this track over a predictable electronic club beat. What makes it worse is how influential the song’s lyrics could be. As they remark on the Daily Mail and the infamous wall threatened by he who shall not be named, NBT addresses youth influence: And all the kids are opening their eyes/and all the kids are starting up a fire/dancing around the light. The band charmingly recognizes and encourages the political activism of their young fans, but it all feels lost in translation underneath a zigzag of drums and synths that never cooperate together, losing the peace and harmony that the song literally longs for.
Broken Machine is best when Nothing But Thieves stick to the alternative rock sound they developed on their first record, refusing to resort to a radio-friendly pop that creating under RCA might entail. “Amsterdam,” the record’s first single, is not as lyrically deep as other tracks, but it is surely the catchiest, as Mason shrieks, I bang my head up against the wall/over and over again over a contagious riff. “I’m Not Made by Design” returns to the theatrical elements that made the band’s debut so thrilling, building suspense in dynamics and adding instruments one by one, leading to Mason’s gripping operatic falsetto as he drags out the I in I’m not made by design. The first verse of “Sorry” is our only taste of Mason’s rawer vocals, the closest we get to memorable ballads like the previous album’s “If I Get High.” The vulnerability of his voice as he breathes, I say, honey, what is love?/ You just say I drink too much is sweet enough to prove a heart’s existence, but sharp enough to cut it in two. Now, each of these rock tracks are tighter and sharper, managing to feel clean, but with a little grit—a sure improvement from their first record. However, when it comes to Mason’s vocals, tightening is the last thing Nothing But Thieves needs. As the band gets more proficient, Mason needs to let loose, experimenting on vocal riffs and continuing to reach those gorgeous high notes. Mason’s voice should never be tamed.