By Michael W. Harris
It’s not that Sam Smith is a terrible artist (I don’t know enough of his work to say that…yet), or that the song is not without merit (it has a few good moments). Rather it is that the song is just bland. Generic. Without substance. It is the Keanu Reeves of songs. It just sort of has a glassy eye look and says, “woah.”
Say what you will about Madonna’s entry, but at least it was TRYING. It starts off well enough, and builds well. But yes, the “glitch pop” era of Madonna is best left forgotten. But as a song, it makes you angry by how bad it is, especially coming after Garbage’s excellent “The World is not Enough.”
“Die Another Day” elicits a reaction, though. You can argue about how bad it is. “Writing’s on the Wall” is the absence of all emotional reaction, both by the song and the listener. It fails at the most basic function of a theme song: it just isn’t exciting. It makes me bored listening to it instead of eager for the movie to come.
It goes nowhere. It fails to build. And as I sat in the theatre watching the opening credits for Spectre I found myself wondering when the hell the credits would be over because I was tired of hearing Sam Smith’s whiney, falsetto voice.
And I can tell you the exact second that I found myself checking my phone during the credits: right after the first time the title is sung and the song cycles back to the beginning (not sure of the timing since the credit sequence is not on-line yet). After starting slow and quiet (like all good Bond themes should, see: “Skyfall”) and reaching a climax, it simply goes back to the beginning of the song instead of changing or building up. Sure, there are some string countermelodies and the like, but the song just goes nowhere. And every time the instruments drop out so Sam Smith can do his annoying falsetto for the “How do I live? How do I breathe? / When you’re not here I’m suffocating” chorus I just want to shove cotton in my ear.
Okay, here is a comparison to demonstrate just what I’m talking about. Play the first two minutes of Adele’s “Skyfall” and the first two minutes of “Writing’s on the Wall” and notice the difference when the chorus comes in around the 1:20 minute and 1:25 minute mark respectively. Hear how Adele continues to build the song up, while Sam Smith drops everything else out for him to sing falsetto. That falsetto literally kills the momentum of the song. And instead of adding more and interesting instruments for the second verse, it basically stays the same (c. 1:45 and 2 minute mark respectively). Sam Smith clearly learned nothing from Motown.
Go ahead, take a few minutes. There will never be a clearer difference between an Oscar winning song and one that should not even be nominated (and if there is a just and loving God in this world, it won’t be).
N.B. – If you know what is best for you, don’t watch Smith’s music video, just listen. The guy looks like he is having a stroke during the entire video. He just keeps moving. Not dancing…just moving.
I wish I had the opening credit sequences to compare because, for some reason, everything seemed ten times worse in the theatres. And I had already heard the song a few times before I saw the film.
Next demonstration: skip to the end of the songs and compare the last minute or so. Adele builds into a manic frenzy before hitting the breaks just before the end, and the last “Bond Chord” hit propels you into the film. Smith, instead, uses the same lame chorus structure, dropping out all the instruments and doing his pre-pubescent falsetto. And the song just sort of…ends. It causes the credits to limp into the movie instead of sending it off.
Yes, Spectre is a film that shows Bond at his most vulnerable: personally, professionally, and emotionally. He is a spy that is almost without a country, and without an agency. All of his past deeds (in the Daniel Craig movies) are coming back to haunt him. So of course the title theme should reflect that…and the first two minutes of Sam Smith’s theme do that well. But then the song just goes nowhere. It just sort of lays across the opening credits like a cold, wet, limp noodle. You just sort of feel sad for it.
And because of this. Because you just sort of feel sad—not angry, not excited…just sort of sad—this is why “Writing’s on the Wall” is the worst James Bond theme song ever. “Die Another Day” sucks and should die right now, but at least Madonna was trying. It was a noble failure.
“Writing’s on the Wall” is just bad music.
As Zoidberg said…