Random Tracks: Sam Smith’s “Writing’s On The Wall”

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.

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Sam Smith- “Writing’s On The Wall”

PEAK: #71 on October 17, 2015

SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: The Weeknd’s “The Hills

With Adele’s theme to 2012’s Skyfall, the Bond franchise was able to adapt the classic Bond theme formula- the grand orchestra, big-voiced performance- into the 21st Century. “Skyfall” became a big hit with lots of people liking the song for reviving the traditional Bond theme sound and became the first Bond theme to win the Best Original Song Oscar. With that reception, it makes sense that for the next Bond film 2015’s Spectre, the people involved would want to repeat what worked with “Skyfall” by creating another sweeping theme with an old-school-sounding British singer who was also very popular. That’s what we got with Sam Smith and “Writing’s On The Wall.” Yet despite following the same template as “Skyfall,” “Writing’s On The Wall” just doesn’t work in the same way.

“Writing’s On The Wall” started when Smith got a call one day to meet with Spectre’s producer Barbara Broccoli and director Sam Mendes. Broccoli and Mendes gave Smith the script and told them to come up with a theme. Smith then quickly wrote the song with Jimmy Napes, the songwriter/producer who’s worked on all of Sam Smith’s big hits including their highest-charting single 2014’s “Stay With Me” which peaked at #2. (It’s a 6.) Smith and Napes recorded a demo which the film people liked. For the recording, Smith and Napes liked the vocal performance on it so much that they used it on the final version which they produced with British electronic duo and fellow Sam Smith collaborators Disclosure. (Disclosure’s highest-charting single, the 2014 Sam Smith collab “Latch,” peaked at #7. It’s another 6.)

Smith says they wrote about Bond the same way they would write about themselves as they explained to NPR in 2015, “I tried to put myself in the shoes of Bond. My music is a diary and it’s a recap of my life, and I wanted to bring that kind of honesty. I wanted a touch of vulnerability from Bond, where you see into his heart a little bit.” You can see that in the lyrics of “Writing’s On The Wall.” The song is structured as a love song where Bond confides himself with a woman as he begins to face some impending doom. Bond has always felt invincible but now feels a storm coming that he’s gotta face but is not afraid even as the light begins to fade and all hope begins to shatter. Bond relies on this woman so much that he doesn’t know what to do when she’s not around, “How do I live? How do I breathe?/When you’re not here I’m suffocating.”

As a song, “Writing’s On The Wall” is a frustrating one to listen to because all the elements that should make it work are all there. The orchestra sounds really gorgeous especially in moments like the intro, the pre-chorus, and then right after Smith sings the title. You can tell we’re dealing with professionals here who know how to pull off a track like this. But the music, no matter how gorgeous it sounds, just doesn’t stand out much to me to warrant repeat listens. It winds up going in one ear and out the other. It’s a perfectly OK piece of music that doesn’t do much to rise above being just that perfectly OK.

But my bigger problem with the song comes down to Sam Smith. The hard truth is that Sam Smith is not Adele. Smith doesn’t have Adele’s soaring and haunting vocal qualities that made her Bond theme work so well. I’ll give Smith points for trying. They’re giving it their all here and there is a certain fragile vulnerability that I like that seems to fit what Smith was going for. Unfortunately like a lot of white British singers, Sam Smith tries to be soulful and winds up overdoing it which is most notable on the chorus when the orchestra drops and sings in a very high feathery falsetto that if you’re not in the right mood can come across as insufferable and melodramatic. Smith also goes all out on the end indulging in melisma before holding out the last note in true classic Bond theme fashion which would’ve been cool if the song had been better.

When “Writing’s On The Wall” came out, Sam Smith was coming off of a very successful couple of years. Their 2014 debut album In The Lonely Hour had been a big success going five times platinum in the US and launching three Top 10 hits. Like Adele with “Skyfall,” Sam Smith was one of the hottest acts you could get to perform a Bond theme at the moment of the movie’s release. But “Writing’s On The Wall” did not exactly garner the immediate acclaim that “Skyfall” got. Many critics have dismissed the song as weak to the point where you’ll already find the song at the bottom of recent Bond theme rankings. I get all that but for me, it’s more in the middling area of Bond themes. Not great but not bad either.

Perhaps the song’s cold reception is why it didn’t get as big in America as “Skyfall” did. Released over a month ahead of Spectre, “Writing’s On The Wall” debuted at its #71 peak on the Hot 100 peak in mid-October before quickly falling off the chart. Looking at the top songs the week that it debuted, it’s not hard to hear why the song didn’t blow up. Late 2015 was a period dominated by insurgent trap, tropical house, and downbeat pop. It’s not exactly the best environment for this heavily orchestrated film theme to get big in. Despite being a flop in America, it was a big deal in the UK becoming the first Bond theme to ever go to #1 after “Skyfall” and Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill” had both peaked at #2. I’ve only just been starting to become more knowledgeable about the UK charts but as an outsider, that feels weird. (For any of you that do follow the UK charts and know more about this let me know in the comments below.)

Like with Skyfall, I saw Spectre right after it came out in November 2015 with my sister and while I remember it being fine the excitement and anticipation from Skyfall certainly wasn’t present with Spectre as its performance show. Spectre got OK reviews and was not as big of a box office hit as Skyfall was but it still made lots of money. In the US, the movie spent its first two weekends at #1 and grossed around $200 million to finish as the #10 film of 2015 right in between Disney’s live-action Cinderella remake and Mission: Impossible- Rogue Nation. Worldwide, Spectre grossed around $880 million, a little less than what Skyfall made but in any right Spectre was still a major success.

Even if people weren’t hugely receptive to Spectre, “Writing’s On The Wall” still became an awards season darling. At the 2016 Oscars, “Writing’s On The Wall” followed “Skyfall” by winning Best Original Song becoming the second and most recent Bond theme to win that award. (We’ll see what Billie Eilish’s theme does at the upcoming Oscars now that No Time To Die is finally being released.) The song wound up beating out some other notable nominees including Lady Gaga’s “Til It Happens To You” from The Hunting Ground and the biggest hit of the nominees The Weeknd’s “Earned It” from Fifty Shades of Grey. (“Til It Happens To You” peaked at #95. “Earned It” peaked at #3. It’s a 6.)

Smith and Napes accepted the award from Common and John Legend, the previous year’s winners for “Glory” from Selma. In their acceptance speech, Smith dedicated the award to the “LGBT community all around the world” noting an article they read from actor Sir Ian McKellan that said no openly gay man had ever won an Oscar. (This was a few years before Sam Smith came out as nonbinary.) Smith was wrong about that. What McKellan actually pointed out was that no openly gay man had won the Best Actor award. There were already openly gay men who had won Oscars including Elton John who won Best Original Song himself for 1994’s “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” from The Lion King. Smith was quickly called out for that incorrect assertion leading them to apologize and admit they had messed up.

The speech wasn’t the only issue. Earlier in the ceremony, Smith performed “Writing’s On The Wall” and it was far from smooth sailing. The performance was heavily criticized for Smith’s off-key singing though to me they sounded just fine. Smith would agree with those criticisms saying they were nervous and described the performance as the worst moment of their life.

Six years later, “Writing’s On The Wall” has been largely forgotten and if people remember it it’s largely for the reviews or the Oscar win. Compared with Adele, Shirley Bassey, or even Paul McCartney, the song will wind up being a footnote in Sam Smith’s career rather than a big point in it. As I’m writing this review, everyone is now excited for the long-awaited and delayed follow-up to Spectre, No Time To Die, which has Billie Eilish singing the theme. No matter what you may think about that song, I can say that at least it’s not as mediocre as “Writing’s On The Wall” is.

GRADE: 5/10

BONUS BEATS: Before Sam Smith came to be picked for the Spectre theme, Radiohead were approached to write the theme. Even though their title song wasn’t picked, the band liked the song so much that they publicly released it a month after Spectre’s release on Christmas Day and have even performed it live since. Here’s the video for Radiohead’s “Spectre:”

(Radiohead’s highest-charting single, 1993’s “Creep,” peaked at #34.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Oxford University singing group Out of the Blue interpolating “Writing’s On The Wall” on their 2016 recording “Retrograde:”

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the enjoyable rock cover of “Writing’s On The Wall” that Cliff Hillis contributed to the 2017 Bond theme compilation Songs, Bond Songs: The Music of 007:

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