Maybe people shouldn’t have been so quick to give Nothing But Thieves as much of a pass as they did. That’s certainly a loaded statement considering how diverse and just overall excellent their self-titled debut was, but revisiting it in a different light does reveal some some different details that were potentially overlooked first time around. It represented a band striving to make as potent a first impression as possible, taking the histrionics of Muse, the crossover appeal of Royal Blood and the malleable, powerhouse vocals of Conor Mason to give 2015 indie-rock the shot in the arm it was crying out for. But it also felt like an album which had already done everything it could, that it had fired out all its ideas in the first shot, and that following it up would mean hastily scrambling together a lesser album from whatever remained in the fallout.
With Broken Machine, there’s nothing that really proves that, but there’s also nothing that disproves it either. What this album feels like is Nothing But Thieves attempting to add even more strings to their already strained bow, and not only do they find it difficult to master, but it has an effect on what they used to be good at as well. Perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise that the elements that shone the brightest on their debut – both the darker minimalism and the sharper, more crystalline indie-rock – only appear in fragments and thus remain largely untampered, but when they’re there, they’re an easy backbone to build Broken Machine‘s best moments around. Amsterdam and I’m Not Made By Design make good use of that heavier rock muscle, as does the roiling, Royal Blood-esque blues-rock of Get Better, but Sorry is where everything clicks in the place to the greatest effect, the sort of slow-burning, gradually building ballad that accounts for the best moments in Nothing But Thieves’ catalogue, and with Mason hitting the effortless, liquid highs to near-perfection, it’s easily the best song here. Really, a lot of Broken Machine‘s heavy lifting is done by Mason, positioned somewhere between Matt Bellamy and Florence Welch with the sort of oversized howls and falsettos that give some sense of flow to even the weakest tracks here; give a track like Hell, Yeah or Afterlife to a less-capable artist, and they wouldn’t nearly be as tolerable as they are.
That’s a handy feature to have, too, as when placed next to how tight their debut was, the quality control on Broken Machine seems a lot more lax, with Nothing But Thieves’ attempts at widening their pallet falling flat more than once. Sure, the synthesised drums and weedy groove of the title track are tolerable, but with the woozy, sluggish Soda and especially Live Like Animals which goes for a whistling indie-disco floorfiller, Nothing But Thieves seem to be actively aiming for sounds and tones that are beneath them. Even if finding a consistent identity was the main issue with their debut, there was enough of a common thread to tie everything together; here, the cogs trying to cram it all into a cohesive whole are virtually audible. Points for trying something new, sure, but the vision doesn’t seem to be as clear or realised to its full potential this time around.
Nowhere is that more evident than the writing, and if Nothing But Thieves had have pulled this off it could’ve been something interesting, tying together ideas of religion, society and Mason’s own mental health with the idea of the broken machine, functioning to an extent but not to its full capacity. Unfortunately the final product isn’t nearly as impressive, mostly because any detail or specificity feels leached away. There’s at least weight to the more personal tracks that’s worth some credit; Amsterdam sees Mason drawing distance from essentially everyone, heightened by his own flaws and addiction to sleep medication on Particles and the title track, with his admission on Sorry being the first point of real closure. That in itself would be a decent enough arc with a bit more meat on the bones, but Broken Machine‘s attempts at social commentary that run parallel really do fall flat. Live Like Animals and Hell, Yeah are about as entry level as state-of-the-world sloganeering gets, and while the loss of faith detailed on I Was Just A Kid and I’m Not Made By Design are marginally better, they still feel underwritten, especially considering how much of a chance Nothing But Thieves have to push themselves out of their comfort zone here, and become so much more than indie darlings.
Because that seems to be the clearest aim here, to move away from the restrictions and expectations of hype and a hugely successful debut and into pastures where Nothing But Thieves are more comfortable with working at their own pace and in their own way. But between experiments that don’t always work and a far less compelling whole, Broken Machine doesn’t offer a lot more than what its predecessor already did. It’s not bad and has some nice ideas that are definitely eligible to carry on into the future, but this isn’t the expansion of Nothing But Thieves’ career that was anticipated. If anything, this album embodies its own thematic representation of the broken machine almost perfectly – working, but not at its full potential.
For fans of: Muse, Twin Atlantic, Radiohead
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Broken Machine’ by Nothing But Thieves is out now on Sony Music Entertainment.