I had high hopes for Sam Smith’s Bond theme. He seemed like a plum candidate for the role: soulful, melodramatic, British. And the song had a perfect Bond title: “Writing’s on the Wall,” achieving the ideal balance of mysterious and clichéd that the series’ best ballads usually strike. Mostly, I was looking forward to seeing how the self-aware bombast of the Bond theme format could transform Smith’s stodginess into something more winking, playful, maybe even fun. It’s something the lachrymose troubadour has long seemed to be in need of.
Sad to say, then, that it appears that Smith did not make a Bond theme with “Writing’s on the Wall” — he made another Sam Smith song. Sure, the intro will throw you off the scent a little — with its muted trumpets, twinkling harps, and of course those sweeeeeeping strings, you’d get flashes of silenced weapons and shaken martinis even if you’d never heard of Spectre. But then the verses: “I’ve spent a lifetime running, and I always get away / But with you I’m feeling something that makes me want to stay.” Huh? Didn’t we hear already this song on In the Lonely Hour? The chorus is even more disquieting: “How do I live? How do I breathe? / When you’re not here, I’m suffocating.”
Yes, Sam Smith tried to squeeze a love-on-the-rocks song into a Bond theme. This could maybe be forgivable if the song was livelier — and the full-orchestra lift of the song is appropriately rousing and portentous — but it goes inexplicably meek on the chorus, as Smith wails in falsetto over lightly plinked piano and virtually nothing else. There’s no beat for the entire song; you can’t help but feel a little bad for the anonymous spy-flick models who will have to writhe in silhouette over no rhythm whatsoever for the Spectre credit sequence. Whole thing’s kind of a drag, really.
Smith’s critical mistake lies not in believing that a Bond theme should be about a relationship, but rather that a Bond theme should be about anything in particular. The series’ best musical works eschewed specificity altogether in favor of a more intoxicating brand of blustery action and nonsensical drama.
There are exceptions — Carly Simon’s relatively straightforward ’70s love song “Nobody Does it Better,” from The Spy Who Loved Me, is a deserved classic — but that’s not really what a Bond theme is. It’s Duran Duran commanding “DANCE! INTO THE FIRE!” It’s Nancy Sinatra declaring “Make one dream come true / You only live twice.” It’s a screeching Shirley Bassey spending an entire outro reiterating just how much Goldfinger‘s title character loves gold, dammit. Hell, it’s a heavily Auto-Tuned Madonna whispering “Sigmund Freud, analyze this.” It’s silly, sure, but what’s the point in pretending like a movie that heavily features sword fights, ice palaces, and a dude with diamonds literally stuck in his face is some kind of Brechtian drama?
Perhaps Adele is somewhat to blame here; not only did she pass on doing the Spectre theme, allowing Smith to step up in her place, but she arguably set the precedent for “Writing’s on the Wall” with her prior title theme to Skyfall, another one of the series’ duller tunes. But even that song had a certain rhythmic strut to it, and Adele allowed the ambiguous high drama of the title (“Let the sky fall, when it crumbles / We will stand tall, face it all together”) to take center stage while saving her trademark vocal histrionics for the outro. And that’s the real problem with “Writing’s” — to paraphrase a team-sports truism, Sam Smith put the name on the back of his jersey ahead of the name on the front of it. As it turns out, there’s absolutely no fun in that.