Friday, 25 September 2015
Sam Smith: Writing's on the Wall
It is an indication of how much I really wanted to like Sam Smith's James Bond theme that I initially thought I liked it. I'd seen a link on the website of The Guardian and clicked it only to find myself being asked for my Spotify login. I don't have a Spotify login. I don't want a Spotify login. Even if I did, I damn well don't want a Facebook account so I can get myself a Spotify account. So I headed over to Youtube, typed in 'Writing's on the Wall', and clicked on the first picture of Sam Smith.
I started to listen. The song was at once somehow familiar. My first thought was that I didn't dislike it but I began to suspect something was wrong when, after about thirty seconds, Mr. Smith still hadn't start to sing. That's when I realised it was a fake. About half an hour later, I finally found a proper link.
I started to listen. The song was at once somehow familiar. My first thought was that I didn't dislike it. I began to suspect something was wrong when, after about thirty seconds, Mr. Smith has started to sing. That's when I realised it was a fake.
This is another of the fake James Bond themes, written by somebody trying to write a James Bond theme and producing something that's deep in the desert of pastiche. It's something I've noticed over the course of the past few Bond films. I think the woeful Madonna effort, for the absolute worst James Bond film (Die Another Day), made the producers wary about letting artists have too much freedom when it comes to the Bond themes. Their response was Chris Cornell's 'You Know My Name' for Casino Royale, full of sweeping strings and penetrating guitar riffs, which felt like a proper stab at writing a Bond theme. Yet it also felt like just that. An attempt at writing a Bond theme.
Bond films have passed off quite a few pastiches for the real thing. I often think the problem stemmed from David Arnold taking over the music direction for the Bond movies. Arnold professed himself a Bond obsessive, deeply influenced by the music of John Barry. I always liked his enthusiasm and love for the Bond movies but, at the same time, to these very cloth ears of mine, it always felt like he was directing his energy into something other than the song. The most obvious example was the Arnold song, sung by K.D. Lang over the closing credits of 'Tomorrow Never Dies'. Some say it was better than Sheryl Crow's 'Tomorrow Never Dies'. As a Bond song, it might well be true. As a song, however, I can't help but think that Crow's is far superior.
And that, I think, is the problem. There's a difference between writing a good song and writing a Bond theme. When the artists set out to write a great song, you usually end up with a great theme. When they set out to write a Bond theme song, you get something that's not quite as good.
'Another Way to Die', the theme to Quantum of Solace, is a fine example. The Bond riff is very evident from the outset but Jack White struggles to adapt it to his style, producing a song that was at once blues and grunge and sometimes all over the place.
'Skyfall', by contast, was just a great song which is a great song outside the content of the film's opening credits.
Sam Smith's effort is far from the worst Bond theme (take that bow, Madonna). Nothing wrong with the orchestration. Nothing much wrong with Sam Smith's voice in that years of listening to Sparks has tuned my ears to the falsetto. Lyrically it is as bland as lyrics get: a schmaltzy list of ballad clichés hastily written down (twenty minutes to write the song, Smith claims) by somebody steeped in schmaltzy ballad clichés.
Second, third, and then fourth listening, I found it growing on me but, really, not so much that I think Smith has justified the filmmakers made in giving him the honour. Smith has the wrong kind of voice for a James Bond theme or he has the right kind of voice for a James Bond who is has become the ultimate metrosexual, as obsessed with his skin cream as the Bond in the novels was obsessed with his cars and women. I don't see this changing any time soon. Might as well try to get used to it. You can't change the world, which might as well be the title of the next James Bond film.