You have to feel for those charged with devising the theme song for Spectre, the 24th James Bond film.
The theme to its predecessor, Skyfall, was the first in decades to really grab the public’s imagination, to take on a life of its own, apart from the film it introduced. The Daniel Craig reboot that began with 2006’s Casino Royale might have reinvigorated the Bond franchise, but the attempt to give the theme songs a suitably gritty image to match – drafting in alt-rockers Chris Cornell and Jack White, the latter duetting with Alicia Keys – never quite clicked. White and Keys’ Another Way to Die joined Garbage’s The World Is Not Enough and Rita Coolidge’s All Time High in the ranks of Bond Themes No One Remembers, possibly because it had no identifiable tune whatsoever.
Skyfall, on the other hand, won an Oscar, a Grammy and a Golden Globe: it outsold Chris Cornell’s You Know My Name in the space of three days. That was at least partly down to the fame of the artist who sang and co-wrote it: it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that millions of people would have gone out and bought a new single by Adele even if said new single had been a cover of The Smurf Song. But Skyfall also pulled off what you might call a return to Core Bond Theme Values – a swooning ballad bedecked with strings and musical quotations from Monty Norman’s 1962 James Bond Theme – with enviable poise: you could imagine Shirley Bassey singing it, but it didn’t sound like a pastiche.
You can’t really blame all concerned for attempting to replicate it with Writing’s on the Wall. It’s sung by Sam Smith – like Adele – a British vocalist who’s stormed America with an album mired in heartbreak. Writing’s on the Wall is a ballad heavy on the leaps from solo piano accompaniment to dramatic strings – as on Skyfall, there’s a particularly big surge after the mention of the title – and replete with echoes of Monty Norman. It certainly demonstrates there’s more to co-producers Disclosure than dance music.
But Writing’s on the Wall doesn’t feel anywhere near as striking as Skyfall. That may be because it’s essentially offering more of the same, while Skyfall felt like a break with the recent past, or it may be because it just isn’t as good a song. There’s something quite bold about a male singer using a Bond theme to convey vulnerability – you need a high falsetto threshold to get through the whole thing – but the melody doesn’t dig into your brain: you keep expecting it to arrive at a showstopping chorus that never comes. Perhaps there’s something telling about Smith’s boast that it took him 20 minutes to write: the result feels less like a Bond theme song than a latterday pop ballad – the kind of thing that X Factor contestants have a crack at – with big strings and 007 references bolted on. It may well be commercially buoyed by Smith’s ongoing success in the same way that Adele’s fame impacted on Skyfall, but the chances of it joining the pantheon of Bond themes that anyone with even a passing interest in pop music can hum seem pretty slender.
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