Something curious but quite revealing happens as the soundtrack recording of the new James Bond film, Skyfall, heads into the home stretch.
Sitting at No. 23 in a dossier of 30 musical vignettes is a snippet that is essentially the album's — and, one would suppose, the film's — title piece. But it's not the Adele-written and -performed theme, which already has made its rounds on the pop charts. This is an icy instrumental in which a stark Brian Eno-esque piano line is undercut with reeds and a slice of orchestral ambience that sounds almost choral. The resulting music works like a requiem, a quantum of solace, to employ an earlier Bond title, in a score filled with restless tension and global ambience.
The exclusion of the Adele track, no doubt the product of some contractual restriction, is something of a commercial kiss of death for a recording like this. After all, who buys a Bond soundtrack just for the score? Well, over a sprawling running time of nearly 78 minutes, composer Thomas Newman's score presents us with 30 great reasons.
First of all, this is rich, orchestral music that sounds positively old-school in some respects. Sure, there are generous contemporary references, especially in the trance-like passages early on that trace Skyfall's story line from Turkey (Grand Bazaar, Istanbul) to China (Shanghai Drive). And no doubt, there is some keyboard-generated orchestral simulation at work (although if there is, Newman hides it well). Mostly, though, Skyfall unfolds as an orchestral tapestry that serves the film as reliably as John Barry's scores did early Bond classics, including From Russia With Love and Goldfinger.
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But the similarity ends there.
Barry's scores addressed the adventures of Bond the hipster. Newman's score addresses a decidedly steelier Bond. Skyfall is filled with the busy, requisite drama that surges with every chase and fight sequence. But it also turns gray and chilly when the film's finale unfolds along Scotland's moors. And it does so not with the expected Celtic melancholy, but with true orchestral menace (as in the drone and chant-style punctuation of Welcome to Scotland) that mirrors the mood and urgency of the moment.
It should be noted that Newman has come up with possibly the least romantic score ever for a Bond film. There are no love themes here, just a rich orchestral restlessness that conveys a different beauty, one that is as deep and unexpected as the film's Scottish home front.
It's just as well that Adele wasn't invited to this party. She helps embellish the film's typically lavish opening credits, but this Skyfall score is an altogether darker party that operates best without wordplay.