Random Tracks: Billie Eilish’s “No Time To Die”

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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Billie Eilish- “No Time To Die”

PEAK: #16 on February 29, 2020

SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Roddy Ricch’s “The Box

We’ve just witnessed James Bond and his lover Madeleine Swann escape from yet another attack from Spectre. Bond has become so used to these attacks that he winds up not trusting the people around him including Madeleine thinking she had something to do with the latest attack. To deal with this, Bond puts Madeleine on a train saying they won’t see each other anymore. We will be seeing them together again later on but for now, we watch this couple in their farewell as the train leaves. Right in the middle of that, we finally go into the classic Bond tradition of the opening credits sequence soundtracked by its theme sung by a popular singer of the moment.

No Time To Die is a movie that for almost two years had seen nothing but delays. It was initially planned for release in November 2019 but then got pushed to early 2020 with a release date for April only to become one of the first big films to be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic raged on, the film kept getting pushed back again and again as theaters remained closed trying for November 2020 before getting delayed to April 2021 before finally settling on October 2021. In that time of delay, the only major piece of the film we had to content ourselves with was its title theme sung by one of the current big names in music Billie Eilish.

18 at the time of the song’s release, Billie Eilish is now the youngest artist to perform a Bond theme beating Sheena Easton who was 22 when she performed the title theme to 1981’s For Your Eyes Only. Despite their many differences, both Easton and Eilish were in similar positions in their careers when they performed their respective themes. Easton and Eilish were both enjoying their big mainstream breakthroughs with both of them winning the Best New Artist Grammy. For them, singing a Bond theme became a big way of capitalizing on their newfound fame as a symbol of making it. But unlike Easton, Billie Eilish’s theme for No Time To Die is actually a pretty solid song much more than “For Your Eyes Only” will ever be.

I’ve mentioned in my last two reviews about how Adele and Sam Smith were some of the biggest artists you could have gotten to perform a Bond theme at the time of their releases but with Billie Eilish, the timing was as perfect as you could get. Eilish had spent 2019 transforming from an underground SoundCloud artist loved by both critics and hipster kids into a full-blown mainstream and generational phenomenon that the grownups now loved thanks to the success of her debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? and its #1 single “bad guy.” At the 2020 Grammys, Eilish became the second artist ever after Christopher Cross to sweep the four major cross-genre categories further cementing her status as the new big thing in music. If you were in charge of finding a singer for the No Time To Die theme, Billie Eilish represented the biggest get for you.

It also helped that Billie Eilish was herself a Bond fan and interested in performing a theme. In interviews about the song, Eilish stated that she and her brother/producer Finneas O’Connell had dreamed for a long time about doing a Bond theme remembering a track Finneas created that their mother remarked sounded like Bond. Film producer Barbara Broccoli met with Eilish and Finneas in Dublin after catching one of their shows. Broccoli liked what she heard and gave the brother and sister team bits of the script for No Time To Die which they used to write their song. It was not easy at first. Finneas began writing the melody on guitar while he and Eilish were on a tour bus going through Texas before developing writer’s block. The song only got going when Finneas started playing the opening riff on a piano that was located in a local arena, “Immediately we were like, “Ohhhh.” It just suddenly made sense. And then we wrote the rest.” 

After the song was written, Eilish and Finneas sent it to the film’s composer Hans Zimmer for his approval. Zimmer had to listen to all considerations for the theme and according to him, Eilish’s theme was the only one he listened to all the way through knowing it was exactly what he wanted, “That’s the vibe. That’s the everything. It’s a perfect movie song: In its quietness, somehow, you have a huge landscape in front of you.” Zimmer met up with Eilish and Finneas to record “No Time To Die” in London at George Martin’s famed AIR Studios with a 70-piece orchestra. Finneas co-produced the song with Stephen Lipson, a producer who’s mainly done work with big UK pop acts but worked with Zimmer on the score to 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. Finneas also did much of the non-orchestra instrumental work playing bass, piano, synthesizer, percussion as well as the drum programming. The only other musician on the track is Johnny Marr of the Smiths who provides us with the twangy guitar playing.

Lyrically, “No Time To Die” is classic Bond with Eilish singing about Bond’s deception and lies in the role of Madeleine Swann. (Eilish is more than 30 years younger than Daniel Craig but we’re in the pop music fantasy world so just roll with it.) From seeing the movie, the lyrics begin to make more sense when you look into them. Eilish’s character is contemplating her relationship with Bond and all his betrayals, “Was I stupid to love you?/Was I reckless to help?/Was it obvious to everybody else?” We’ve seen female artists sing about being in a relationship with Bond before in songs from Easton’s aforementioned “For Your Eyes Only” to Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” to Adele’s “Skyfall” but those songs were mainly about being enraptured by Bond with these artists declaring their love and dedication for him. “No Time To Die” is a more introspective and cynical look at this dynamic which fits with the context of the film. Honestly, I’m surprised we hadn’t gotten more themes like this.

As a song, “No Time To Die” does the usual tricks you expect from a Bond theme to pull off- the unsettling minor key feel, the tremolo guitar sound, the big romantic-sounding orchestra that builds throughout, the incorporation of the riff from John Barry’s “James Bond Theme,” and the minor ninth chord that’s played at the end. All those elements are routine and even cliches by this point but they still worked for me when watching the opening credits hitting a satisfactory nerve in my brain especially with the chord at the end. But it’s also a song that doesn’t sound much like your typical Bond theme. It doesn’t have the bombast and bigness that we associate with the form at least not at first. It’s led off by a quiet piano that anchors the song’s first half before drums and guitar come in but even then they’re all muted until after the second chorus when the full orchestra comes in providing a moment of brief bombast before calming down again. 

For me, the biggest revelation with “No Time To Die” is Billie Eilish herself. On a vocal level, it’s not all that different from what we’ve come to expect from her. Eilish delivers the song in the same quiet whispery style that she does on everything which goes well with the largely minimal score. Eilish has always been known as a very expressive singer and performer and it’s those strengths that work well for her here. Her attempting a full-on Shirley Bassey or Adele-type theme would have been well out of her wheelhouse so it makes sense why the song sounds the way it does. But on the bridge, as the orchestra gets loud, Eilish’s voice rises with the music and even holds out a note in that classic Bond theme tradition showing that she could do powerhouse vocals if she wants to. More importantly, while Billie Eilish has been seen in the public eye as a very Gen Z pop star, “No Time To Die” as well as her recent fashion transformation shows that she’s well equipped to handle something as old fashioned as a James Bond theme.

Much of the public reaction to “No Time To Die” from what I remember was largely positive but there were some people also saying that it didn’t hold itself up to the classic Bond themes. I get that. Overall, the song doesn’t lodge its way into your brain like the biggest and most iconic Bond themes do but “No Time To Die” still works nonetheless for its purpose in the movie and as a fine enough song on its own.

Eilish was announced by the Bond franchise through Twitter as the singer for No Time to Die in January 2020 with the song coming out the next month. At the time, the movie was still scheduled to be released in April at a moment when COVID-19 still hadn’t spread so far for us to think of shutting down theaters. With this release plan still on, Eilish began promoting the song premiering it live at the BRIT Awards on February 18th, five days after the song’s release, to a rapturous crowd with Marr on guitar, Zimmer conducting the orchestra, and Finneas donning a suit and tux while playing piano as Eilish sat in the middle singing. 

The song instantly became a hit worldwide where it debuted at #1 in Ireland and in the UK becoming the second Bond theme there to go to the top after Sam Smith’s “Writing’s On The Wall” which means more Bond themes have now gone to #1 in the UK than in the US. But over here, “No Time To Die” didn’t have that big of an effect even despite Billie Eilish’s massive fame and star power coming off from her 2019 breakthrough and Grammy wins. The song debuted at its peak of #16 before falling off the chart two weeks later. At a moment when Roddy Ricch’s viral trap breakthrough “The Box” was dominating the Hot 100 that winter, it makes sense as to why “No Time To Die” didn’t take off even if given her fame, it should have at least gone into the Top 10 but that’s the pop charts for you. Nothing makes sense most of the time.

As the pandemic soon took over the world and the movie’s release date like all others became uncertain, Eilish’s theme remained out in the world and when the movie looked like it was coming out last fall Eilish went back into promotion. She released an official music video showing her singing in a black and white lounge setting further highlighting the smoky quality of her performance while clips of the film play throughout. A few days later she gave a solid performance of the song on The Tonight Show where she and Finneas were interviewed by host Jimmy Fallon. 

Even though the movie hadn’t come out, “No Time To Die” won at this year’s Grammys for Best Song Written for Visual Media. Now that the movie is out, the song will most definitely get nominated at the upcoming award shows like the Oscars for Best Original Song. Considering the recent record of Bond themes winning that award, “No Time To Die” will certainly be in a great front-runner position should it get nominated.

Due to the weird nature of the movie’s release, it’s hard to say what legacy “No Time To Die” will leave in regards to the Bond franchise and to Billie Eilish. At this point with the song having been out for over a year and a half, it’s hard to imagine it gaining any new traction even though Eilish is once again promoting the song and will presumably be performing it in her concerts now that she’s planning to go on a full arena tour next year. Regardless of what legacy it leaves, to Billie Eilish, “No Time To Die” will always represent a childhood dream that came true which must be nice. How many of us can say that about ourselves?

GRADE: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: For songs this recent, Bonus Beats can be a hard thing to do since these songs’ cultural legacies are still being figured out. I can’t find any notable covers, samples, or soundtrack placements for “No Time To Die” outside of the movie so instead, let’s go with this pretty sweet clip of Billie Eilish recently crashing a Daniel Craig interview to say goodbye:

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