James Bond was a bit of a mouldy fig when it came to music. There weren’t many things worse, he opined in Goldfinger, than “listening to the Beatles without earmuffs”. The Beatles had the last laugh – 007 presumably had to reach for hearing protection when Paul McCartney was commissioned to write the theme song for Live and Let Die – but for years, the Bond themes pandered to their hero’s tastes, invariably coming from artists who were more likely to be found playing the Talk of the Town than the Marquee club.
That changed dramatically in the 80s. The more anachronistic the character of Bond became, the more the producers attempted to appeal to a younger audience through music. In recent years, they’ve tried everything from grunge (the late Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell) to Madonna to an awkward duet between Jack White and Alicia Keys. But even so, commissioning Billie Eilish seems striking: it tells you as much about the 18-year-old’s ascent to the kind of artist your grandparents have heard of as it does the Bond franchise’s desire to appear hip.
Like her cover of Yesterday at the Oscars ceremony, No Time to Die sees Eilish taking a respectful approach. There’s a sense that this may all be part of a concerted effort to broaden her appeal to more mature audiences. It’s a moot point whether such an effort is really necessary – her multi-platinum debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? won praise from quarters that don’t ordinarily take much interest in music that appeals to teenage girls – but either way, the glitchy electronics of that record have vanished here, replaced by tasteful orchestration and nods to Bond tunes past.
There’s a vague hint of the opening of Diamonds Are Forever about the intro, an interpolation from Monty Norman’s James Bond theme and a guitar part that carries a distinct echo of Vic Flick’s iconic twang. Yet Eilish has stamped her own identity on the song. The tendency for vocalists tackling a Bond theme is to belt it out, as if in homage to the most famous Bond singer of the lot: Shirley Bassey is known for many things, but subtle understatement isn’t among them. Eilish, however, opts for her standard close-mic approach in which surliness does battle with vulnerability.
It fits what she’s singing. The days when the lyrics of Bond themes invariably came laden with woeful double-entendres pertaining to the hero’s sexual prowess are long gone. (It reached a deranged pinnacle on 1974’s The Man With the Golden Gun, which required Lulu to note “he has a powerful weapon” before wondering, “Who will he bang?”) More recently, the lyrics of Bond themes have occasionally tended to the baffling – the question of what on earth Adele is rattling on about hangs heavy over the otherwise great Skyfall.
No Time to Die, however, smartly refracts the Daniel Craig depiction of Bond – dark, solitary and tormented beneath the cool exterior – through Eilish’s signature brand of teen angst: “I should have known I’d leave alone – it just goes to show that the blood you bleed is just the blood you own.” What 007 himself would make of it is an intriguing question, but No Time to Die is a confident, appealing addition to the Bond theme canon.