Billie Eilish’s James Bond Theme: Nobody’s Done It Better in Years (Column)

Eilish's quiet contribution to the canon goes dark and lets us ponder what happens to a superspy's emotions when the party's over.

Billie Eilish Variety Cover Story
Kelia Anne for Variety

Billie Eilish has officially filed her James Bond theme, and for anyone who worried that she was too young — dare it be said, too green — for the task, there was no need to worry. The 18-year-old gets it, even if she wasn’t yet born when the Broccolis were commissioning what some of us still think of as “late period” Bond themes from the likes of Garbage and Sheryl Crow. The teen with the Midas touch has not picked this occasion to develop a cold finger.

No Time to Die” is one of the better Bond songs of the last 25 or 30 years, coming in ahead of a lot of entries that seemed promising and didn’t really work: besides Garbage’s and Crow’s, there were underwhelming efforts from Chris Cornell and the team of Jack White and Alicia Keys, worthy artists that tried to contemporize the idea of what a Bond theme should be, at their mortal peril. (The less remembered about Madonna turning Bond techno, the better.) It’s much more in the successful lineage of the last two tries, Adele’s “Skyfall” and Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall,” which happened to be the first two to ever win the Oscar (shamefully). But Eilish arguably does a better job than those two of both acknowledging the John Barry musical tradition and sticking with something is very much hers and hers alone.

Which is to say: Yes, there are blatant echoes of Monty Norman’s seminal Bond theme from 1962 — four times! What more could a Bond traditionalist want? But Eilish also sticks with something that is already very much a signature: She darn-near whispers through the song.

Somewhere, Shirley Bassey is saying, “Turn it up, girl!” And somewhere, Shirley Bassey is wrong, because the quietude works just fine in a theme that works to Eilish’s “lend me your ear — no, closer, please” strengths.

Stylistically it has some strong similarities with the Adele and Smith songs of late, with a soft keyboard intro eventually giving way to strings and brass. But Eilish extends the stillness far longer than they did; it’s just a little past halfway into a four-minute track that the hint of a beat kicks in, and even then, the percussion disappears again for a hushed coda. You might almost be thinking this is going to be a sort of reprise of Eilish’s quietest songs, “When the Party’s Over” or “I Love You,” before the orchestration and timpani fire up at the end of the first chorus, and you remember, “That’s right, Hans Zimmer did assist with this.”

So did Johnny Marr, of the Smiths. Presumably that’s him there, at the very end, playing the so-called “spy chord” that traditionally ends Norman’s classic instrumental theme. (Guitarists still debate exactly what that chord is; here’s a jazz buffs’ rabbit hole to go down in which enthusiasts debate whether or not the originating ’60s guitarist, Vic Flick, played an Em/maj9 — you be the judge.) That’s hardly the first time the Norman theme (often attributed to Barry) pops up in the four minutes: You can hear what sounds like a faint synth version of the familiar riff 33 seconds in, and then a loud and blatant guitar iteration at the minute mark. Citing these may seem silly to non-buffs, but after the tradition of integrating the original theme was foregone by so many other recent Bond songwriters, it’s nice to hear Eilish and her brother-collaborator, Finneas, nodding so reverently to tradition.

And maybe they needed to go the extra mile in including these throwback touches because their contribution to the canon is so different, in a few  ways. One big immediate point of distinction is in the lyrics. “Skyfall” and “Writing’s on the Wall” (from “Spectre,” because not even the people that thought “Skyfall,” “GoldenEye,” “Moonraker” and “Thunderball” were good song titles were going to give you a song called “Spectre”) sounded mournful and ominous but ultimately had hopeful, romantic, uplifting themes. None of that for Eilish — or maybe it’s more like none of that for the movie, because she and Finneas say they wrote to the storyline and script they were given. If that’s so, “No Time to Die” is going to be filled with romantic betrayal.

Let’s hope so. One effect of the majesty of John Barry’s songs and scoring over the years was that they sometimes lent the Bond films a little more gravitas than they really merited. The near-mysticism of something like “You Only Live Twice” didn’t make for the most natural segue into dumb sexual badinage with Miss Moneypenny, but it let us imagine that the characters had deeper undercurrents than what we saw on the screen. The one 20th century film that really let Bond have a real, ultimately doomed emotional attachment was “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” which, ironically — deliberately — had the most cheerful-seeming theme of them all, Louis Armstrong’s “We’ve Got All the Time in the World.” Of course the films do, or once did, have a tradition of sensual love songs, like “For Your Eyes Only” or “Nobody Does It Better,” suggesting that the sexy clinches Roger Moore found himself in on a life raft at film’s end might last longer than a one-rescue stand. Bassey excelled, of course, at the themes that were steelier and/or villain-themed: “Goldfinger,” “Diamonds Are Forever,” the unused “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”  — a tradition taken over, with pretty strong results, by Paul McCartney (“Live and Let Die”) and Tina Turner/Bono/the Edge (“GoldenEye”).

In modern times, the pop singer-songwriters being drafted have had to deal either with increasingly unwieldy post-Ian Fleming monikers (“The World is Not Enough” is kind of a garbage title — sorry, Shirley Manson) or the odd demand that every other modern theme have “die” in the title. (Following “Tomorrow Never Dies,” “Die Another Day” and “Another Way to Die,” this is the fourth song in eight films to go precisely that fatalistic. The producers should just make it easier and title the next Bond film “Die! Die! Die!”) One reason so many of the Bond songs from the last couple decades have been so mediocre is probably the songwriters trying to fulfill the assignment without having the slightest idea what to write about. Even what everyone would have considered the best of the contemporary choices, “Skyfall,” is something close to pure, indecipherable mush as a set of lyrics. Not to begrudge Adele or her co-writers their Academy Award, but it was hard to let Adele’s soaring voice really tug at you when it seemed like she might have been singing about a housing tract.

“No Time to Die” doesn’t really soar, and doesn’t really mean to. Although Eilish does get about as belty as she’s going to get for a bit in the final minute, she’s comfortable sticking with an intimate tone that’s more subtle jazz chanteuse than brassy Bassey, and that’s a big part of what makes the track appealing as well as just different. Listening to it, you can’t help but wonder anew what it might’ve been like if Amy Winehouse had gotten it together to finish the track she was offered.

We can hope the movie is this dark, too — at least those of us who are actually geeky enough to hope James Bond movies will get dark can. But even if it isn’t, Eilish’s tragedian-leaning contribution will still be in that rich, earlier tradition of theme songs that made it seem like there might be love at stake, as well as the world, or Fort Knox. For four cool minutes, “No Time to Die” lets us consider just how lonely it might get in Bond’s world when the party’s over.