It starts off well. And that’s how you know it’s going to get good, right? If it begins on a high note, the rest merely has to follow suit, like an outfit Bond might wear. It’s all downhill from here. You get the epic strings and vast brass expected from these films, plus a nice little chord progression. So far, so good. And this is where the “Writing” hits a “Wall.” Deep breath. Sam Smith probably wasn’t the best choice for this single.
Generally, Smith is exceptionally talented and has a great voice. Versatile, yet unique. You don’t win a Grammy for being popular. Your music has to be popular. And you definitely don’t win just for being British and white, unless you’re Adele. With that said, every theme song has to fit the subject. I’m not saying you have to reference a title to be great. “Goldfinger,” “A View to a Kill,” “Live and Let Die,” “You Only Live Twice,” “Diamonds Are Forever,” “GoldenEye.”
“Thunderball,” “From Russia With Love,” “License to Kill,” “Die Another Day,” “Skyfall,” “Tomorrow Never Dies,” “Moonraker.” “The Man With the Golden Gun,” “For Your Eyes Only.” “The Living Daylights,” “The World Is Not Enough,” etc. I could go on if there were more Bond movies with namesake theme songs. I admit that a few of those are not excellent. Furthermore, I am actually a big fan of “You Know My Name,” by Chris Cornell. Then again, I also like Audioslave.
So what goes into a great Bond anthem? You have to be able to imagine James Bond singing it, right? I love a good falsetto, but this is a little false. As ITunes user Dr.007 put it, he sounds “like a soloist from the Vienna Boys Choir in an ice bath.” That’s not all bad or all that bad, if not not at all bad. VBC is bad. Not bad bad; Michael Jackson Bad. Good. I think they’d be pros if that didn’t entail child labor. But would you ask them to headline a Bond film?
Maybe Bond isn’t singing his theme; we know he’s not humming the “James Bond Theme” every time he takes out a bad guy. He could be brooding, though. But brooding over something to this song, not brooding over this song. I like when the theme integrates some of the score, like “You Know My Name.” The instrumental side is not a problem here. Nevertheless, the singing undercuts the melody. In this case, the music underwrites the words.
Lyrically, the “Writing” isn’t even bad. It’s beyond serviceable. I just don’t know what it has to do with Spectre. Smith wanted to write this from the perspective of 007, giving gravitas to the internal struggle. I get that; in fact, Smith exposes elements of vulnerability in Bond. At the same time, it’s like a china cup in a bullpen. Granted, few themes are actually very focused. Would you know what The Spy Who Loved Me is about given “Nobody Does It Better?”
Opening credits are supposed to set the mood, not put you in one. And you can’t really kill the mood without spelling doom. It’s almost better to have it at the end; it’s harder to spell doom backwards. Every time I hear this refrain, I am expecting to hum the cry of “Earth Song.” Instead, we are brought back down to Earth, but not like “Skyfall.” This is my major issue: the song doesn’t go very far. Better to go nowhere than backwards, then.
Here is a deeper analysis.
Finally, there is just too much vibrato in the chorus. It’s like The Bruce Dickinson was in the recording studio and told everybody, “I gotta have more vibrato.” Adele is much more subtle or even organic with hers. She breathes life into the end of a phrase, whereas Smith often takes on a life of his own and ends it abruptly. I guess this means the song might have fared better with a difference set of chords.
Of course, this is not outright sabotage. It’s Sam Smith, not Sam Sith. And how! Do you review it as a James Bond song or as a Sam Smith song? It should be a James Bond song first and that’s part of the problem. It sounds like an unreleased single from In the Lonely Hour, which would be another questionable title for the opening track or a James Bond movie. Re: Quantum of Solace. All told, I like it the more I listen, but most people are only going to hear it once.
In closing, I appreciate that Smith had a specific vision and stuck with it wall-to-wall. Moreover, he decided to aim precisely instead of throwing everything at those walls. Bond would be proud of the effort. Something I learned from EDM festivals is that visual implementation is a big deal. Seeing––rather, hearing it in context will probably enhance everything it has to offer. That’s all it is: an offering. Not to the gods, not to Adele. It does kind of sound like a tribute song.