Yesterday was a good day! Two Bond music related goodies arrived at my front-door. John Burlingame’s book, The Music of James Bond (which I can’t wait to read) and the new SkyFall Soundtrack.
If you weren’t already aware, Bond has a new sound courtesy of frequent Sam Mendes collaborator and eight time Oscar-nominated composer Thomas Newman (son of the legendary composer Alfred Newman). Series regular David Arnold sits this one out after a run of five consecutive movies. Whilst this may not be the popular consensus, I’m actually very grateful Bond has a new contemporary sound. I must confess, I was initially somewhat weary of Thomas Newman getting the gig, his brother David would seem a much more natural fit for this film.
David Arnold is clearly respectful of late composer John Barry and whilst his work is definitely serviceable, his work has a tendency to be somewhat derivative of his first Bond score (Tomorrow Never Dies). John Barry was a master of creating atmosphere by using specific orchestral styles or instrument types (even creating a new sound for each Bond actor – Connery: Guitar/Brass, Moore: Strings/Brass, Lazenby: Moog/Synths, Dalton: Bass/Drum-loops). David Arnold on the other hand tends to throw in the entire kitchen sink. Subtle it aint! Some of his work is often loud, overblown and occasionally bloated. Once you have thrown everything at a cue, you don’t really have many places you can go (although he falls back by throwing a hanging trumpet chord before repeating all over again). The exception to this rule was his more introspective score to Quantum of Solace – which I think holds up as some of his strongest Bond work to date (even if the film itself doesn’t).
Newman takes his own approach. It won’t sit well with everybody, as it is at times very minimalist, but still has the power when required. The difference is he generally doesn’t tend to over-blow just for the sake of it (although there are instances where it still happens – including one “Thunderball” moment – although this mostly brought a smile to my face). Generally this is not what we have come to expect for Bond score (ala Eric Serra), and whilst I believe it fits the film like a glove – some will dismiss it as “not David Arnold”, “not Bond” or “sonic wallpaper”. Time will tell.
Newman is a composer I rarely “get” upon a first listen, some of his work here is no exception. However there are definitely stand-out tracks which broke this rule, most notably Severine (a beautiful lush romantic track which harks back to John Barry) and Komodo Dragon (which is more David Arnold in style and also quotes Adele’s Bond main-title). Talking of which, the Adele track isn’t on this album which it is at pains to point out on the back of the album. This is a dire trend which started with Casino Royale and the omission of the Chris Cornell’s rather good You Know My Name track (if only they did this with some of the less than good tracks such as Another Way To Die or Die Another Day). If you want Adele’s song you will need to buy the single separately. Personally I rather like the Adele track and it works rather nicely in the film, albeit it with seemingly softer vocals. One other track you may or may not get is Old Dog, New tricks, which is an iTunes exclusive. Two other tracks I’d like to single out as enjoying early on are Enjoying Death which had a nice cryptic 60’s spy-flute swagger about it and Mother which has a more emotional tug.
For the most part however, Newman’s style of pulsating chromatic percussion and guitars keep the momentum going without ever drowning things out ala Die Another Day. There is definitely a large ethnic/turkish influence felt through-out the work which starts right from the opening track, a rather exciting action cue. You can hear three full tracks from the album here (including the exquisite Severine track) – courtesy of Cinema Musica and Sony Music:
Criticisms? Sure! Thematically it could be a little bit stronger and the music tends to be rhythm based. There is thematic material to be found however such as a melancholic yet regal M theme (as witnessed on both Voluntary retirement and Mother), Severine’s theme (also in Modigliani, Komodo Dragon) and of course the James Bond theme (Breadcrumbs). As I said, Newman’s material doesn’t always hit you between the ears on the first listen. Only now am I starting to appreciate some of the density. It could also be argued that for a piece largely revolving around Britain, things sound too ethnic. However for the most part, the album sits together well as a listening experience. The tracks are out of sequence and I’m pleased to say that the track names don’t contain any obvious spoilers. Only the last track seems somewhat out-of-place – mostly a mix of the action cue Newman infuses elsewhere.
Not everyone is going to agree with this assessment, but I commend Newman for bringing his own style to Bond, and for me this sits quite highly amongst the non-Barry soundtracks. Of course it is still nowhere near the great John Barry (even on an off day), but I certainly wouldn’t be upset to Thomas Newman return for another adventure further down the line. I highly suspect David Arnold will return back for Bond 24, and I hope the break has given him some fresh inspiration.
Meanwhile, to tie things up nicely – why not watch a clip of Thomas Newman, David Arnold and John Burlingame talk here?