Travelling back in time
One of the things I look forward to is listening to a new Bond soundtrack for the first time. When Sam Mendes announced that he would be returning as the director of Spectre it wasn’t any surprise to learn Thomas Newman would also return.
Before going any further, let’s revisit the Skyfall score (my original Skyfall soundtrack review is here) which seemed to split opinion. On the one hand, it was a classy affair and fit the film well. It certainly wasn’t as bloated as many of the David Arnold scores had become. On the other hand, whilst it worked for the film, it didn’t stand on its own outside of the film as a standalone experience. It felt awkward at times and I sense that Newman felt uneasy tackling the bombastic nature of Bond and incorporating other themes (the traditional Bond theme and Adele’s title song). The Adele theme was only inserted by request of the producers at the eleventh hour (for the track Komodo Dragon). It should be noted wasn’t actually arranged by Newman but by orchestrator J.A.C. Redford (who also did the orchestrations on the Adele song as well as the score). Newman was clearly feeling the pressure and was quoted in Film Score Monthly as saying he didn’t do this because his task “was already so huge and daunting”. Likewise his full rendition of the Bond theme was mostly taken from David Arnold’s orchestration on “The Name’s Bond… James Bond” in Casino Royale. That said, Newman seemed happy to do his own subtle references to Bond theme (those with a slightly musical background – might find some of this interesting), but perhaps this was too subtle for many. Should a Bond score really be subtle? People are still debating whether Newman should remain as Bond composer with arguments both for and against.
Writing’s On the Wall
Moving forward, the first piece of Spectre music was from the trailers. I loved the moody atmosphere of the first teaser trailer (well until that annoying toy xylophone plays the Bond theme towards the end). The second trailer was more action orientated and had some Bond fans salivating thanks to the incorporation of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (nice touch). But these tracks by Jeff Pfeifer do not form part of the soundtrack. The first real piece of music from the film was the Sam Smith Title song “The Writing’s On the Wall”. I don’t think there has ever been a more divisive title song in Bond history (save for perhaps Madonna’s Die Another Day which is now widely regarded as one of the worst). By far the most surprising and controversial element were Smith’s falsetto vocals during the chorus. Not only was it extremely high pitched, it broke away from traditional Bond chorus convensions by become something fragile, delicate, brittle rather than building to crescendo. There were many who were never going to give the song a fair chance just because it was Sam Smith and wasn’t Adele/Skyfall. Love it, like it or loathe it – the song made history and became the first Bond song to reach number one in the UK singles chart. Whilst not entirely convinced at first, I found the song to be a grower after a number of listens. I’m now curious to see how it fits with the film’s main-title sequence.
A few weeks after the single release, John Suchet introduced two new track on ClassicFM from Thomas Newman’s score: action track (Backfire) and romantic cue (Donna Lucia). More on these later, but the interesting point to note was Newman was clealy reusing motifs from his Skyfall score. I recall one very ill-advised comment (no – not that Daniel Craig one about slash his wrists rather than play Bond again) from Sam Smith saying “I wrote the song in twenty minutes”, which only served to fuel the fire of his detractors. It could be argued that Newman has also set himself up by saying “Scores should be unobtrusive” and “if you notice them, maybe they are working too hard”. I can already hear dissention from his naysayers. The character of Bond is of course bold, brash, confident. John Barry clearly understood the necessary pomp of Bond and never shied away from this – in fact he revelled in it. Subtle and unobtrusive? Not a chance, but it was all done with Barry’s impeccable class with an element of restraint where required. Barry also made his scores have a unique timeless quality, with each having it’s own seperate identity (even if some of the later Roger Moore films were getting a bit samey). It no doubt helped that he was actively involved writing the title songs and would incorporate them into his scores. Times have changed and the process is now very different.
A place with no mercy
So the big questions on my mind: will Spectre be a new sound from Newman, will it incorporate the title theme, how will the Bond theme be used, how many more Skyfall references will be included, will I actually like it? I was somewhat underwhelmed by samples from ClassicFM. After much grappling with the terrible Sainsbury’s online site – my questions would be answered (or so I expected)! I’ll be frank here: whilst I didn’t outright hate it, it was perhaps the first time I failed to get excited by a Bond soundtrack. Harsh words!! I only listened to it once on the release date (Friday 23rd October). And then I pretty much forgot about it – unprecedented for a Bond score. Yesterday I decided to revisit and give it another listen and I’m really glad I did. As before, Newman’s material rarely hits me between the ears on a first listen. As I relistened, I decided to write a breakdown of my thoughts for each track as it played. I’ve posted these comments below – I don’t think there are any major spoilers – but if concerned, you should perhaps skip to my final thoughts.
01. Los Muertos Vivos Estan
We kick off in true Bond style: Mexican percussion set to the Bond theme: sexy woodwind, low strings, throbbing brass, twang guitars. It’s pure Bond and a great kick off to start the album! Newman seems particularly confident here. The orchestrals, percussive and electronic elements are all nicely mixed (without overloading things in the way David Arnold has in the past). However you could argue this is a bit of a false start for what follows. There isn’t really another track quite like this on the album. I can see it being a favourite track for many, Bond is clearly doing something cool and spy-like onscreen whilst this is playing.
02. Vauxhall Bridge
It starts with a couple of notes which feel familiar from Skyfall. About half a minute in we get a new motif, I’ll call it the “snooping theme” as this is what it sounds like to me. There is some noticeable restraint on the brass usage on this track. Nice referencing of the Bond theme using woodwind at the end.
03. The Eternal City
There are some lovely eerie Rome influences here. In particular there is good use of choir. However it isn’t long before “Brave New World” from Skyfall is referenecd. About halfway through we also get the Skyfall house theme (not the Adele title theme) which plays pretty much to the end. It’s a bit of a shame as I rather like the haunting new material and choir usage but the recycling of Skyfall material takes me out of the track.
04. Donna Lucia
A lush romantic theme, but one which is clearly indebted to Severine on Skyfall. Whilst this is a more complex track, I prefer Severine for it’s simplicity. A lovely if not entirely unfamiliar track.
05. A Place Without Mercy
Mostly unmemorable mood music. Cymbal percussion throbs urgently against some tremelo strings, with some subtle brass and electronics. It’s all rather subdued and unmemorable, I don’t think this will ever be a favourite.
06 – Backfire
It is apparent this is the way Newman intends to score his action scenes, which comes as a disappointment! The whole thing is frantically paced but there is little in the way of exciting Bond moments here. I feel this track should be screaming “Bond” but it doesn’t. It feels like nothing more than some percussive 16th arps set to standard action staccato strings and occasional punchy brass – generic and at home in any action film. Newman quotes heavily from his track Grand Bazaar in Skyfall towards the end. There is one standout moment at the two minute mark where the Bond theme builds and then a lovely choir kicks in. Sadly this is the only fleeting 30 second highlight before everything returns to sounding generic.
07. Crows Klinik
Around half way through there is a nice lush motif (let’s call this the “travelogue theme” for now). It is the type of music which introduces us to a lovely sweeping vista to showcase the next location in the film (I might be wrong, but that’s my guess).
08. Pale King
It begins dramatically before falling off into mostly mood music. It has an impressive waterphone/strings stinger about half way through which was rather unexpected. Hopefully this will keep us all on our toes when watching the film. It doesn’t necessarily make for a pleasant listening experience, but it is clear something will be amiss and tense during this tracks film placement.
This is one of my favourite tracks. Whilst Lucia receives the more traditional John Barry major/minor romantic arrangement, Madeleine seems a more mysterious character. There is more than a touch of Danny Elfman’s Batman (“Love theme” from the first Tim Burton film) about this track. And I for one absolutely adore it. At last I feel we aren’t merely retracing Skyfall material! One of the standout tracks.
10. Kite in a Hurricane
A moody piece which sees the Skyfall house motifs return again, which builds to a rather intense finish.
11. Snow plane
Lots of fast tapping arps again. A fast paced piece does not however equal an exciting listening experience. Occasionally some Bondian brass flourishes pokes through, but once again this is generic action film music. Again this is exactly where the Bond score should be shining! The best material is when the arps are given a break and the brass grows. And once again, this feel like a complete missed opportunity.
Aha, I see the “snooping” theme from track two makes another welcome reappearance. Nice to see Newman reusing more of his Spectre material rather than recycling Skyfall motifs! There is also a nice variation on the Bond theme at the end.
13. Secret Room
Another nice track. Presumably this is the piece which will emotionally connect Madeleine with Bond. After a minute the melody makes itself known with a lovely piano motif which evolves into some beautiful string flourishes. I suspect this is the “emotional crux” of the film. It is also the type of piece where Newman sounds most confident – this is what he does. After this theme we get some electronic and Arabian/ethnic flavourings before building to a climax with the “travelogue theme” again.
A Moody start before strings weave furiously try to and create some tension and brass cuts through. That said, it’s not a particularly memorable piece. Probably works okay in the film.
15. Writing’s On the Wall
Don’t get me wrong, this is a nice addition but it sticks out like a sore thumb on the album. It might have worked best at the start or end of the album rather than the middle. I have no idea if this will be used in the film, but it feels at odds with Newman’s material. It is an abridged instrumental version without the Sam Smith’s vocals. I prefer it when composers weave the title theme in and out. This is nothing more than a direct quote from the Smith version. When the soundtrack was announced, it seemed the marketing team were also conflicted whether it would feature the instrumental or Sam Smith version (see an early marketing image below). An oddity!
Pic: Marketing dilemna – will it, won’t it? An alternative album cover prior to the release suggested we would get the Sam Smith Title song. Ultimately we only get the instrumental version on the album.
16. Silver Wraith
This track begins with a moody opening minute which doesn’t add up to much outside the film. After this it gives way to perhaps my favourite theme on the soundtrack. My guess is that this is the “sinister” Spectre or Oberhauser theme. Some nice minor chords. Arabian chants echo in the background to give the piece a rather haunting feel. Bravo, at last – I feel I’m in a Bond film again! One of my favourites.
17. A Reunion
A rather long track, mostly moody. Just under a minute in and lovely strings/brass come in, but the chord progressions feel more like an epic Sci-Fi film than a Bond film. Will there be some kind of Doomsday device in this film? Half a minute goes by before some electronic percussives take over. After a minute or so – we repeat this: subtle introversion followed by electronic percussion. There is a hint of the Skyfall house theme creeping back again. This all no doubt works well in the film, but as it listening experience outside of it – it doesn’t really work terribly well.
18. Day Of the Dead
Another track which sticks out like the other sore thumb (like track 15). Presumably this one is source music (ie. background) from the film. Lots of percussion, clapping and cheering vocals. I’d love to know what they are actually singing!
19. Tempus Fugit
An atonal string riser kick things off before more Skyfall themes are back with a few eerie overblown staccato flutes echoing in the background. This feels like it will be used for a “count down to destruction” scene, but that is just a guess on my part. If it was much longer it would wear out its welcome – thankfully it just about makes it!
20. Safe House
One of the standout tracks. It starts off rather energetically and segues into a lively version of the “travelogue theme”. After this finishes, it goes a little bland for a moment until the beautiful motif from “Secret room” reappears again. The travel theme comes back afterwards as do some nice nods to the Bond theme which build to a lovely crescendo!
The track begins with some electronic underscoring, around half way through the brass comes in with strings. It’s all rather dramatic, if not entirely memorable. It hints at material from Skyfall but we will hear even more of this in the next track.
The guitar strumming from The Moors in Skyfall is back and kicks off the track and plays throughout. This is largely a forgettable and seemingly long track however.
Begins with some more electronic underscoring before hitting a sinister note and the obligatory percussive banging comes back in. Just at the point I’ve lost interest we get a few nice brass blasts at 50 seconds in. That guitar riff and exhausting string and percussion arp then keeps throbbing away. Around the three-minute the Bond theme kicks in but it’s a bit late by now and I’ve lost interest again. Let’s hope I don’t feel the during the film.
24. Westminister Bridge
The Moors guitar strumming is back, but the opening has by far the best and most muscular use of it. Why? Well mostly this is down to the Bondian brass which screams in the opening part of this track (in fact the second brass blast references John Barry’s Jetpack scene climax from Thunderball – lovely little nod). Before long however we’ve lost these Bondian flourishes. The last-minute is moody music, clearly the core of the action has ended at this point and things now more psychological. I enjoy the first minute or so of this track, but could easily skip the rest!
25. Out of Bullets
A welcome and less exhausting/introspective track with that lovely “Secret Room” piano motif again. As suspected earlier on, the emotional musical backbone to the film.
26. Spectre (End Titles)
This is perhaps my favourite if only because it contains two of the best new themes. It opens with the sinister Spectre theme from Silver Wraith (a slightly longer version). Two and a half minutes in we get a reprise of Madeleine’s theme from track nine. The “Secret Room” piano motif makes an appearance at the very end – but without the lush string part. What a lovely way to end.
…And Finally, Here We Are!
Final thoughts? Well as you can tell I am a little conflicted! Much like the film’s title song, I think this is a grower (to be fair Skyfall’s score was also). There are some lovely themes in here: the sinister Spectre/Oberhauser theme, Madeleine’s theme, the travelogue music, the emotional piano “Secret Room” motif and the “snooping” theme.
On the flip side I am somewhat disappointed there is so much Skyfall material being reworked here. Mendes goes on record as saying whilst the film is a continuation “Spectre is a very different film to Skyfall”. Why recycle so much material from that film then? I might accept this if Mendes was expanding the subtext/themes between Skyfall and Spectre, but the musical choices and timings seem too random to entirely justify this argument. I don’t believe Newman is being lazy, it feels more like this is used as a safety crutch (I may be wrong). My other gripe is that Newman is clearly not understanding what the audience wants during the action side of a Bond film – which is where this score falls flat. The music is fast, but generic, repetitive and largely unmemorable. I suspect this will open him up to criticism from members who like that John Barry (and to a lesser degree David Arnold) Bond sound. To be fair, he is an introverted composer and does the emotive character stuff wonderfully. I will also give kudos for showing restraint where David Arnold would most probably throw everything but the kitchen sink in. It’s a real shame he didn’t work the title song in (he had time unlike Skyfall), and there is an awful lot of mood music which I suspect fits the film like a glove but doesn’t make for an exciting soundtrack listening experience (and sounds like sonic wallpapering). According to Sam Mendes, Newman has composed over 100 minutes of music for the film, so it will be interesting to see if the missing 20 minutes contains any other surprises!
On the album side, it is very well produced (maybe the mix isn’t quite as strong as Skyfall’s), the track programming is random to say the least. I was originally going to be harsh and award this only two stars out of five, but like other Newman material this is at times dense and takes a couple of listens to fully appreciate. Being as I am warming to some of it after subsequent listens – let’s make that three stars. John Barry this ain’t, but times have moved on! If you disliked the Skyfall soundtrack, there is little here which will make you change your mind. If you loved Skyfall, this is essentially more of the same. I think on some levels I prefer this score to Skyfall with several reservations. Perhaps I was expecting something fresher from Newman who now seems settled in his approach. For the future I’d be keen to see someone new tackle the Bond 25 score – none more so than up and coming British composer Daniel Pemberton (personal favourite The Game, and more recently Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Steve Jobs which I suspect will raise his profile significantly) – a talent to keep an eye on!
Meanwhile I’m really looking forward to catching the film this evening, I’ll hopefully have a review of that shortly!