Adele's 'Skyfall,' with its heavy debt to Shirley Bassey, might not have been camp - in another century
The next voice in the lineage of James Bond theme singers is launched: world reigning, retro-soul-leaning Brit Adele.
Adele’s track for the upcoming Skyfall film was announced, then leaked, earlier this week, and made official at 0:07 Greenwich Mean Time on this auspicious "James Bond Day," the 50th anniversary of the release Dr. No. It is the 23rd voice to take the coveted role that has been filled by all manner of superstars prior, from Nancy Sinatra to Louis Armstrong, Jack White, and Alicia Keys to (perhaps, most oddly) Chris Cornell.
No performance is more iconic than that of Shirley Bassey, who appeared three times singing title tracks that would become pop hits: "Goldfinger," "Diamonds Are Forever," and "Moonraker."
Adele follows Bassey’s approach, that of the bombastic diva at the dinner theater, reminding the sophisticated set of their charms.
The alternate tradition is that of the pop-framed rocker whose rough edges frame the darker side of Bond as gentleman monster, a la "Live and Let Die."
Both traditions, though, bend to a single overarching Bond-song formula: a curious match of the artist summoning her own zeitgeist while performing in an anachronistic style with wide-screen arrangement.
Adele is both an obvious choice and one of the few well-considered choices for the theme-song performance, which says just as much about the state of the music industry as it does about public opinion about first-world espionage.
The artists chosen to accompany Bond have never been underdogs. But there’s been a distinct shift in the tone and character of Mr. Bond since Casino Royale, just as "men's men," cartoonish bad guys, and the ribald chuckles of Pussy Galore are a thing of the past, so too is the role of the genuine mainstream singer, much less one demure enough to frame Bond's shtick as desirable (Carly Simon, Sheena Easton, Rita Coolidge); such magic tricks are hard to come by these days.
Adele's "Skyfall" doesn't exactly fall for Bond, but rather uses the awkward titular compound to frame the story of a lover's pact (no genders specified) to meet the apocalypse together. The sentiment isn't about romance so much as loyalty, and while Adele's delivery is full of nuance, it lacks engagement with the erotic or dramatic potential of the lyric.
Like the Youtube video that presents the texts in silly evaporating sequence as they're sung, so the lyrics form an ephemera emotional collage. It's almost as if "Skyfall" were the climax of some other song, although the sparse piano and horns of the introduction do frame the song as if it were meant to be whole.
As it moves through two verses and to the chorus, it's clear that the primary trick for arranger Paul Epworth, of "Rolling In The Deep" fame, is addition, in the evil math-genius style of the Diane Warren school: add strings, add more strings, add a woman's choir, add low horns, add a full choir, and then add more strings until you come to rest somewhere near the mid-four-minute mark. Except that Warren tweaks little things in each verse, chorus, and middle eight to make all those arrangements really work: Adele's song feels more like a vamp made into song by sticking a 77-person Abbey Road orchestra on it. The melody is unspectacular, and the barrage of countermelodies downright sinister. It might work as a kind of Sarah Brightman musical-theater gothic fantasy, but here it undercuts the supposedly anthemic quality of the track. And with “Skyfall”’s neo-realistic mix, sprays of lounge-y drums, and Adele's characteristic overwrought phrasing on these vague images, the tune takes on a downtempo air that fades into the background even as it gives up all the sound it's got.
The Grove Dictionary of Music cites two examples in the definition of the term “theme song”: "Oklahoma!" and John Barry’s James Bond theme.
To fit the definition of a “theme song,” a song must really engage with the thematic material in a way that is recognizable and memorable. Like Bond, it must be bold. In Barry’s original theme (still used for a reason) there is the hard down-pick surf riff, the hard-blown horns, that single marimba line, and even the sharp dynamics and intense use of silence to create drama.
"Skyfall"'s melody, lyrics, and rhythms fail to add this freshness, and the only elements that unite the song to its illustrious kin are the lovely interpolation of the Dr. No theme in the first chorus, the huge arrangements, and of course the blue-eyed soul of Adele herself. She and Epworth have fulfilled the definition of the term “theme song” without doing much about the spirit of it, and for better or worse the result is a tune infused with a camp sensibility, but perhaps that’s what must pervade any art associated with the Bond franchise in the 21st century.