It’s hard to believe Casino Royale, Daniel Craig's first Bond film, is almost a decade old. At this point he seems to be so comfortable with the role that it’s hard to imagine anyone else successfully embodying 007 (which, of course, will change at some point). The horrible memories of Pierce Brosnan’s Die Another Day feel now like just a bad dream and the modern rebooted chapters seem to borrow more from the original Ian Fleming prose, at least when it comes’ to James’ moodier portrayal. The last time we saw our character on big screen, he was going back in time to his childhood. Sam Mendes guided him through the slightly more contemplative and character-driven piece with great skill and Skyfall proved to be this series’ biggest box office hit yet and a fitting 50th anniversary tribute. The director returns three years later and reinvents the legendary organisation Spectre from Sean Connery era. Expectations can't be any higher.
Thomas Newman was never known for tackling big action films and his involvement in scoring Skyfall was a big surprise at the time. Many hoped he would be employing a more orchestral side of his composing skills and merge the trademark bittersweet harmonies with John Barry’s sensibilities. As it turned out, his music turned out to be more about bringing Bond to Newman, rather than the opposite. Some listeners were disappointed with the results, others praised the unique mood that the composer brought to the fabulous images from legendary DP Roger Deakins.
If you think Thomas Newman committed a sacrilege with his eclectic and atypical Skyfall, then this score certainly won’t change your mind. In fact it might be even more challenging listen for many people who expect more easily enjoyable and breezy listening experience. If the previous one felt autumnal, this one is definitely wintry. It’s even darker, moodier, colder and… unlike any other Bond score. It does, however, feel more coherent in terms of overall approach, instrumentation and tone. It might not be 007 music of old but it is surely more consequential than the 2012 outing.
The iconic James Bond theme is present throughout Spectre, although not in its bold classic jazzy form you’d expect (and perhaps want). While Newman does probably use the tune more often than David Arnold did in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, his nods and quotes tend to be very subtle and… well… Newmanesque. Between his two works, we can hear some of the most curious variations yet (like the guitar version in ‘L’Americain’). The album starts off without the famous gunbarrel sequence and we are instead welcomed by a truly eerie vibraphone-like opening in ‘Los Muertos Vivos Estan’. Tambuco group gives the cue a percussive drive and Newman re-introduces us to the classic theme with a stylish low woodwind solo. As the track develops, we get to hear more of variations on this tune (and its ostinato), with a welcome addition of electric guitar.
Newman was never a composer who would adhere to continuity of themes but in Spectre he brings back the ghostly Skyfall motif from previous film. As our hero continues to be haunted by his past, we get to hear more of the material in this latest chapter. Coupled with the lovely choral performances of London Voices in ‘The Eternal City’, it creates a truly haunting mood. It can also be heard elsewhere on the soundtrack album, often to a chilling effect. In ‘A Reunion’, for instance, we get to hear some of the bleakest music ever composed for a Bond film, complete with faint distant human voices. Creepy.
Romance, an obligatory ingredient in this film series, is perhaps not as well pronounced as with previous scores. But at least Newman gets an opportunity to employ his gorgeous bittersweet string writing. ‘Donna Lucia’ feels like a lusher and more mature expansion on the Severine material (from Skyfall), as does ‘Madeleine’. ‘Secret Room’ introduces surprisingly gentle and warm tones, giving the surrounding gloominess, and glass harmonica certainly adds to that haunting quality. Finally, the second part of end credits suite is just absolutely achingly beautiful and offers an surprisingly understated finale ('Spectre'). Overall, all those examples form an interesting contrast to a more unabashed romantic material from older films. A sign of times, perhaps, or another trait of the original Bond, as conceived by writer Ian Fleming.
Newman clearly learned a lot since the last outing. Spectre sounds more assured and coherent. It can be particularly well heard in numerous action tracks. The propulsive energy of pieces like ‘Backfire’ and ‘Snow Plane’ is a far cry from brassy and old-school scores of David Arnold. They seem to have more in common with John Powell’s sequences from Bourne series. And yet, somehow they still belong in the world of Bond, especially when calling back the jazz fragments of the original theme. In the case of former track, we get to hear the tune accompanied by a choir. Must be a first. Occasionally, Newman brings back the similar material from previous film but arranges it in a meatier way (‘Tempus Fugit’ and ‘Careless’), thus demonstrating his growing skills in the genre. The entire final portion of the soundtrack album is action-packed and James Bond theme is brought back in a more pronounced way. ‘Detonation’ ends with a determined and dramatic statements of its rhythmic ostinato. ‘Westminster Bridge’, while mostly a musically expansion of the gritty Skyfall’s moor sequence, finally gives us a solo trumpet version of the principal tune. Brief, true, but better late than never.
The original soundtrack album from Decca is extremely generous - almost 80 minutes of original score are featured on it. The vocal performances of Sam Smith’s underwhelming 'Writing's On the Wall' are notably absent from the presentation, similarly to the Adele’s song from Skyfall. This trend seems to be a total contradiction of what these records used to be about. We are, however, treated to the 2-minute instrumental version of the song halfway into the disc. Given poor reception to Smith's full radio single, it is perhaps the only version you’ll ever need. ‘Day of the Dead’, a source track composed during the shooting period, is interesting but feels slightly out of place.
It’s hard to say who might actually enjoy this album. For traditional John Barry fans, it might be too modern and dark. For casual listeners - too long and impenetrable. The popular series, once famous for big popular tunes and jazzy colours, is now moody, bleak and understated. The only linking element between those two worlds seems to be Monty Norman's (John Barry's?) legendary theme. But even that tune is only a ghost of itself, no matter how often quoted. Having said that, Spectre is in many ways an improvement over Skyfall. Unlike that score, it feels like a whole and not just a collection of Thomas Newman’s quirky mannerisms. The composer finally strikes the right balance between between his own unique and stylish spy genre. It might not be your dad's 007 but it surely pays tribute in an unique way. Hate it or not. But as it intelligent and well crafted it might be, don’t expect to be drawn to this soundtrack on a regular basis. This Bond at his darkest yet.
Spectre is out now from Decca Classics