In Random Tracks, I review a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. If you like what I’m doing, comment and let me know what random Hot 100 hit song you want me to review.
Jack White & Alicia Keys- “Another Way To Die”
PEAK: #81 on November 29, 2008
SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: T.I.’s “Live Your Life” (feat. Rihanna)
One thing I’ve noticed about Bond themes in America from writing about them is that many times a theme’s hit potential doesn’t necessarily correlate with the hit potential of the film it’s attached to. Sometimes a Bond film will do extremely well while its theme either charts lowly or doesn’t chart at all and other times a low-rated Bond film will include a theme that does really well. 2008’s Quantum of Solace and its theme “Another Way To Die” falls into the former camp.
Coming off the big success of 2006’s Casino Royale and the introduction of a new James Bond with Daniel Craig, Quantum of Solace got a more meh reception but it still made lots of money. In North America, it was the #1 grossing film on its first weekend of release in November 2008 becoming the highest-grossing opening weekend ever for a Bond film. In America, Quantum of Solace basically grossed the same amount as Casino Royale did and also placed at #9 on 2008’s year-end box-office chart between Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa and Horton Hears a Who!. But the film’s theme, which boasts the only Bond theme so far to be a duet, made little impact debuting on the Hot 100 shortly after the film’s release at #81 falling the next week to #82 before falling off the chart making it the lowest charting Bond theme in Hot 100 history.
The theme from Quantum of Solace, “Another Way To Die,” was not originally meant to be a duet. We now know that Amy Winehouse was the big candidate to perform the theme as confirmed by the film’s composer David Arnold in the 2015 book Some Kind of Hero: The Remarkable Story of the James Bond Films. Arnold said that he already had put together a track for Winehouse and her producer Mark Ronson that suited their style describing it as a “contemporary post-sixties piece.” Unfortunately, Winehouse never finished the song and was scrapped for the film. A Winehouse Bond theme seemed like such an obvious decision considering her voice was seemingly made for a Bond theme. (Amy Winehouse’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “Rehab,” peaked at #9. It’s a 10.)
With Winehouse out of the picture, the people behind Quantum of Solace had a plan for Jack White to write the theme for Alicia Keys to perform but somewhere along the way the two of them worked so well together that it was turned into a duet. In interviews from the time, both White and Keys were excited to work together as they were fans of each other’s work. Keys noted that she and White wanted to combine their styles to “do something really interesting that mixes rock and soul together.” White, a Bond fan himself, often played John Barry’s Bond film soundtracks and knew what he wanted for the theme, “I didn’t want to imitate anything or be retro. It just had to feel like Bond.”
In terms of genre, sales, and pop chart success, Jack White and Alicia Keys seemed like an odd pairing. Jack White had spent the last decade as one half of the White Stripes who had become big critical favorites for their stripped-down lo-fi garage rock but didn’t make much impact on the Hot 100. (The White Stripes’ highest-charting single, 2007’s “Icky Thump” peaked at #23. 2003’s “Seven Nation Army,” the White Stripes song that everyone knows now through sports chants only peaked at #76.) Alicia Keys, one of the biggest R&B artists of the ‘00s, was coming off a very successful period in 2008 with her As I Am album spending four weeks at #1 eventually going four times platinum and launched a major #1 hit at the end of 2007 with “No One.” Even with these differences, White and Keys were an admittedly inspired choice for the theme considering both are known as multi-talented artists with a knack of melding old and new styles into something of their own.
“Another Way to Die” is essentially Jack White’s creation considering he’s the sole producer and songwriter on the song while also playing many instruments including drums and guitar. Listening to the song, you can tell White knows what he’s doing. There are many cool things to like here- the fuzzed-out guitar, funky drumming, an ominous piano, and horns courtesy of the legendary Memphis Horns that add a sweaty soulful intensity coming in at exactly the right moments. “Another Way to Die” is Jack White combining the intense feel of a Bond theme with the hard rock edge present on the previous Bond theme, Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name,” and with an authentic old-school soul workout. He manages to pull it all together and make it work with all these elements working in conversation with each other to help the song.
In their performances, Jack White and Alicia Keys are basically trading off each other. They take turns on the verses before coming together on the chorus but don’t sound like they’re trying to outshine the other. There’s even a little call and response bridge with Alicia Keys mimicking Jack White’s guitar. That’s some good shit there. Like the last theme, “Another Way to Die” has White and Keys singing about looking after yourself delivering a stark warning to James Bond on how he shouldn’t trust anyone listing a bunch of things that as far as they’re concerned are just more ways for Bond to die. Both artists managed to sound comfortable together delivering their lines with a distorted and eerie muffle never feeling out of place. As a Bond theme, “Another Way to Die” is a slight one but one that tries out a bunch of cool ideas and succeeds for the most part.
At the time, “Another Way to Die” was largely panned by critics and has since garnered a particularly infamous legacy when it comes to the Bond franchise. Lookup any Bond theme rankings from places like Rolling Stone and you’ll see this song often listed as one of the worst themes. Personally, while this song isn’t one of my all-time favorites this is far from the worst Bond theme not when “Die Another Day” exists. I was only nine years old when the song came out so perhaps if I had been old enough then to pay attention to all this as I do now then maybe I’d understand the negative reception more.
Perhaps it’s that reaction that explains why “Another Way to Die” has the most dismal chart performance of all the Bond themes to chart on the Hot 100. Or perhaps it’s just another case of not fitting in much with the dominant sounds at the moment. By the end of 2008, anthemic pop-rap, dance-pop, and electropop were leading the hit parade so on that level I get why “Another Way to Die” never took off even though it had Alicia Keys, who’d been having great chart success in 2008. My best guess is that people listened to and bought the song largely out of curiosity for a short while before quickly moving on.
For both Jack White and Alicia Keys, “Another Way to Die” hasn’t become a big part of either one’s career. Even at the time, they didn’t do much promotion of the song never even performing it together outside of the music video though Keys performed it on her 2010 The Freedom tour. The negative reception didn’t do much damage to both artists as White and Keys have continued on with their successful careers. But with the dismal chart performance of this and “You Know My Name,” the people behind the Bond films would soon revert back to the big-voiced orchestral sweep that made the Bond theme famous in the first place.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the cover of “Another Way to Die” that the band Ballzy Tomorrow recorded for the 2017 Bond theme compilation Songs, Bond Songs: The Music of 007:
3 thoughts on “Random Tracks: Jack White & Alicia Keys’ “Another Way to Die””
Like I said before, I like this and never understand why it is so poorly regarded. It charted quite high in the UK – #9, just checked. I like the White Stripes riff twinned with the horns, and the fuzzy guitars. I think the vocals are what lets it down… I’m not convinced that Jack White and Alicia Keys are a great pairing. In fact, why did they come together for this??
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Yeah admittedly the vocals are the weakest part of the song but even then I don’t have much of a problem with White and Keys together. It’s just a fine enough theme.
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