“Every Bond song establishes a relation between Shirley Bassey’s ‘Goldfinger’ and the year of its film’s release—differently, depending on the sensibilities, age, and styles of the artists involved, as well as the particularities of that year’s top-40 pop,” write Adrian Daub and Charles Kronengold in their new book The James Bond Songs: Pop Anthems of Late Capitalism. “… Bond songs are about the early ’60s, yes, but they’re also about how their own moment differs from the ’60s.”
This is true for “Writing’s on the Wall,” Sam Smith’s newly released theme for the forthcoming Spectre, though Smith and his producers may want it to seem otherwise. In a promotional video, Smith said that instead of making a “big pop song” he wanted to have listeners say, “That’s Bond, that sounds like a Bond theme.’” Accordingly, there has perhaps never been a more defiantly retro title song in the history of the franchise, which is saying something. In fact, “Writing’s on the Wall” hearkens to a time before “Goldfinger,” before Bond on screen, or at least to a tradition that has run parallel to the Bond sonic universe: that of music without rock-and-roll influence, music where no one craves propulsion, rhythm, or groove.
However sumptuously it used big-band jazz and classical orchestration, Bond’s early music, under John Barry, still dabbled in the modern. It still had drums; the main theme’s riff, remember, is all surf guitar. The initial flare of strings and horns on “Writing’s on the Wall” recalls a lot of Bond music, but most especially the opening to 1965’s “Thunderball” from Tom Jones, incidentally the last British solo male performer to tackle Bond before Smith. But that song was a slow dance with pulse; Smith’s is no-dance—percussion-free other than piano and an occasional rumble of what sounds like a timpani. This fits with Smith’s mission statement, published in GQ earlier this year: “I miss the days when girls would wear full long dresses and just stand onstage and sing.”
Smith’s quavering voice and fussy phrasing have already made him the rare modern pop star who’s controversial for purely musical reasons, and lo, the kneejerk reaction on Twitter to “ Writing’s on the Wall” has been to compare the song to the sound of cats mewling. But as people sit with the song and notice the way it drifts and simpers and contemplates putting down the revolver for romance, they may realize what actually makes the song a departure, and what it actually says about the era we live in.
All the previous men to create 007 anthems performed over-the-top virility: In Jones’s case, it was with lounge-singer swagger and adventure-narrator drama; in the cases of Paul McCartney, or Jack White, or Chris Cornell, it was with seething rock edge. Smith is doing something else entirely—going supremely emotional, vulnerable, weak (the closest Bond predecessor for this unapologetic wimpiness might be to A-ha’s Morten Harket, whose contribution most fans have tried to forget). He’s self-consciously pathetic and pining, entering a cartoonishly high register when at the lyrics’ most abject point:
How do I live? How do I breathe?
When you’re not here I’m suffocating
I want to feel love, run through my blood
Tell me is this where I give it all up?
Smith sounds so fragile there that you could argue he’s subverting the franchise, or betraying it. The James Bond character is lizardlike and amoral, a sex machine who’s always made to regret the rare instances when he allows a woman to hold power over him. The Daniel Craig era has complicated this notion, but not to the extent that Smith now has. Handwringing about a supposed cultural assault on masculinity awaits, no doubt.
Sam Smith has written plenty of songs like this, of course. But he says “Writing’s on the Wall” is supposed to be from Bond’s perspective—“I wanted a touch of vulnerability from Bond, where you see into his heart a little bit,” he told NPR. This, for the record, was not necessarily his assignment. Many previous entries have been about Bond, or about a villain, or about more nebulous concepts, often sung from the perspective of a smitten admirer. It’s radical enough for the openly gay Smith to choose to inhabit arguably the most aggressively heterosexual hero that Western society has; using that chance to imagine Bond ending his “lifetime running” for gushy committed love can quite plausibly be seen as heretical. Or perhaps it’s a spoiler for Spectre’s plot, in which case the conversation over the newly openhearted James Bond has barely yet begun.