Chris Cornell died May 17 in Detroit hotel at the age of 52. It’s a passing far too soon for anyone, much less a singer who leaves behind the cultural impact of Soundgarden, supergroup Temple of the Dog, and Audioslave. But in his solo work, Cornell also left a particular cinematic legacy as the co-writer and performer of “You Know My Name,” the Grammy-nominated theme song for 2006 James Bond film “Casino Royale.”
There are many things that make this James Bond reboot (the first to star Daniel Craig) one of the better popcorn movies of the young millennium. Craig’s steely lead turn, Eva Green’s alluring subversion of Bond girl tropes, and a thrilling parkour chase sequence anchor the film from its opening black-and-white sequence to its mythology-looping close.
And all of it is jump-started by that Cornell song. In a crowded lineage of legendary musical performances — Shirley Bassey’s booming balladeering, the controlled chaos of Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Live and Let Die” — “You Know My Name” stands out as one the best.
At its most basic, “The coldest blood runs through my veins/You know my name” is a pure distillation of the Bond character’s dangerously cool demeanor. But listen closely to the phrasing and melody of that chorus-closer and it’s also an echo of the rat-a-tat horns from John Barry’s original theme. Other theme songs sampled the famous brass-heavy crescendo, but Cornell and co-writer David Arnold were able to marry the two, delivering it behind a gruff-voiced gusto that set the rest of the film up for greatness.
The song is also an impressive showcase for Cornell’s four-octave vocal range. Switching back and forth between octaves, “You Know My Name” is a man effectively in a duet with himself, plumbing the lower, sultry half of the melody (“when you return to the night”) just before hopping up into a full-voiced falsetto (“the game that we have been playing”). It’s something that Sam Smith echoed less effectively in his “SPECTRE” song, an attempt to recreate, in song form, the endless tug-of-war between Bond’s personal and professional entanglements. (“The mericless eyes of deceit,” if you will, as Cornell rumbles in the opening.)
“Casino Royale” needed an reinvention that attracted a newer, fiercer Bond for the post-9/11 age, but one that was still conversant with the iconography of the character. It helps that “You Don’t Know My Name” feels like it’s from the 2000s without being constricted by a time period. Adele’s “Skyfall” is a conscious recreation of those early Bond ballads. And while Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill” is great, all it takes is a few bars to pin down the era it hails from.
But there’s something about the way Cornell approached the task that incorporated the past and carved a way forward. It paved the way for “Another Way to Die,” Jack White and Alicia Keys’ unlikely, woefully underrated addition to the Bond theme collection.
Reprising the theme song in a Bond film score isn’t a new practice, but the handoff between Cornell and Arnold, the “Casino Royale” composer, makes the song feel even more timeless. The melody feels as potent and foreboding when transposed to a full orchestra as it does when it’s played in a rock-opera style.
And it’s impossible to talk about the song without acknowledging the sumptuous background it plays across: a stellar opening credits sequence, drenched in playing-card animation that stands as a beautiful short film all its own. Pairing the line “I’ve seen this diamond cut through harder men” with a 2-D would-be henchman stuck with a weaponized pip protruding from his chest makes the eventual poker table scenes seem that much more sinister.
That’s what the song provides more than anything: a propulsive opening, with just the right amount of introspection. A movie’s simple mission statement, capped off with a few flourishes from a veteran performer.
It’s sad that we won’t get a reprise, but as the music world pays tribute to Chris Cornell today, let’s remember that he’s a major reason why the Bond world continues to spin.