BRING BACK THE LYRICIST

~ Posted by Nicholas Barber, October 9th 2012

The best thing about Adele's new Bond theme, "Skyfall", is that it sounds like a Bond theme, which is a quality we haven't been able to take for granted in quite some time. In the decade since the 007 franchise celebrated its 40th anniversary, we've had Madonna's melody-free dance track, "Die Another Day", Chris Cornell's chest-beating rock anthem, "You Know My Name", and Jack White's funky stomper, "Another Way To Die". But we haven't had anything approaching the glorious torch songs co-written by John Barry during Bond's golden years.

It's a relief to hear that Adele's full-blooded ballad—co-written with her main collaborator Paul Epworth—shares some of its DNA with those Barry compositions. The vocals ooze cool confidence, the arrangement stacks up great slabs of brass and strings, and the whole production builds satisfyingly from spine-tingling menace to operatic, apocalyptic grandeur. The song has the same title as the film, too, which is a point in its favour. As soon as you hear it, you know you're squarely in 007 territory, so razor-rimmed hats off to Adele, as well as to the film-makers who hired her. The fact that they ditched the Americans and went for a big-voiced female British superstar is in itself an encouraging omen—a sign that after the poorly received "Bourne Supremacy" imitation that was "Quantum Of Solace", they're trying to get back to the Bond we know and love.

Still, when you write in the Barry tradition, you know you're going to be compared to the maestro, and Adele is a can of Fanta compared to his dry Martini. Much of "Skyfall", both verse and chorus, repeats the same four chords over and over. That structure may echo Monty Norman's original Bond theme, but it sounds rudimentary next to Barry's jazzy sophistication.

The lyrics don't have the storytelling or the tightly-packed rhymes which Hal David and Don Black once provided, either. The first verse is fairly shambolic, stuffed with too many lines which don't quite rhyme or scan, but it does have a doomy power, what with its Doors-echoing opening, "This is the end". The chorus is better. It's a big, stirring declaration of solidarity, spoilt only by the couplet, "Let the sky fall / When it crumbles", already the most notorious lyrical solecism in Bond history since Paul McCartney's "In this ever-changing world in which we live in". To get around the small detail that "sky fall" doesn't rhyme with "crumbles", Adele mispronounces the last word as "crumb-balls", which makes it sound like some kind of unappetising finger food—a vegetarian alternative to Scotch eggs, perhaps. Free of charge, I'd like to offer her the revised couplet, "Let the sky fall / You'll hear my call". It's not Hal David, but it's an improvement, so maybe she'll have time to re-record that bit before the DVD comes out.

Anyway, after the chorus has promised that Adele and her beloved will "stand tall and face it all together", it seems perverse of her to sniff in the second verse, "You'll never have my heart". And it's odd that she should then change her tune again (metaphorically speaking) in the third and best verse, in which she gushes, "I'd never be me without the security of your loving arms keeping me from harm". Make up your mind, Adele. Much like the Bond themes co-written by Duran Duran, A-ha and Bono, "Skyfall" is a reminder of how much we lost when we decided that we didn't need professional lyricists any more.

All the same, "Skyfall" is a pretty good imitation of classic Bond, so let's hope we can say the same for the film itself in a couple of weeks' time. Meanwhile, readers are directed to one of the finest Bond themes of recent years, "I Believe In You", a beguiling little number sung by Rumer and written by Eg White. Its only problem is that it plays over the end credits of "Johnny English Reborn".

Nicholas Barber is a film critic, and former rock critic, for the Independent on Sunday.  His recent posts for the Editors' Blog are When Dredd was wacky and Ten best movies since 2002