And my annual Eurovision Preview post comes to Listen Outside. I’ve been splashing about in the Eurovision stuff since Christmas, and finally we’re getting ready to put on a show! It’s a great selection of songs this year, very few totally duff tracks and some of the best ever songs for some countries.
Come with me, on a journey into sound.
Sweden: Robin Bengtsson – I Can’t Go On
From the opening funky parp of a synth riff to the syncopated post-chorus horn riff, everything about this song is timed to perfection. The stage routine also requires pinpoint accuracy in dancing on the travelators, which looks impressive but adds to the slightly clinical feeling of the song. Even softening the expletive is the kind of thing a tabloid bad boy popstar would do to get headlines, even if they never intended to release the explicit version.
Anyway, this is indisputably a good song. I find it easier to listen to when I’m not looking at the stage show, because Robin is one of those guys who makes my brain say ‘NOPE’. I am confident it’ll do well, because there’s nothing really to dislike about this song. You can even dance to it when you’re not on a travelator.
Grab factor: ‘Did he just say…?’
Drag factor: No dynamic variation on repeated choruses. Clinical.
Georgia: Tamara G – Keep The Faith
If you’re watching the semi finals with an ESC newbie or casual, this is probably the time at which you need to give them their second cocktail. You’re a good host, so you already handed them a beverage before you settled down, but after the opening number (Jamala? Ruslana? A children’s choir? Svetlana Loboda riding a mechanical unicorn through the arena?) and Sweden, things are going to be a little tough for a while.
So, Georgia have sent a plush and emotional ballad in the faux Bond theme category, sung by the lovely Tamara in a big sparkly frock. The song lightly alludes to how unpleasant people who invade other countries are, which is interesting given that Tamara was a member of the band who are so far the only victims of the ‘No Politics’ rule by trying to get away with “We Don’t Wanna Put In” in 2009, not long after the conflict between, um, Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia. Honestly, the context is much more interesting than the song. But her voice is pretty good.
Grab factor: Them pipes. That soul.
Drag factor: Intensely overwrought.
Australia: Isaiah Firebrace – Don’t Come Easy
Of all the Eurovision nations, I was least expecting a meh from Australia. There’s just nothing for me to get excited about in this. I was just listening to it for three minutes, and I couldn’t remember anything about it. It hasn’t helped that Isaiah hasn’t been able to join the promo circuit, but this isn’t up to Australia’s standard at all. In the mini-league of emotional solo male songs (Portugal, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ireland, Croatia, Slovenia) it’s neither stunning nor memorably bad.
The biggest crime at Eurovision is being unmemorable. Tucked away here between two similar sounding songs and not having a huge amount of memorable content, I am worried for the Aussies.
Grab factor: It’ll have to be Isaiah’s personal charisma
Drag factor: The leaden tempo
Albania: Lindita – World
I feel like the fact that Albania select their song in Festival I Kengis, at the darkest time of the year around the Winter Solstice means that they’re pre-disposed to go for the darker side of anthemic ballads. The ESC version of World thrills with huge power ballad production touches and Lindita’s voice is superb, but ultimately sounds at least ten years behind the rest of the competition. It’s a really impressive example of the type of song that it is, but the type of song that it is stopped being used as the lead song from high budget action thriller/romances in the nineties.
Grab factor: Do you like a cinematic, orchestral power ballad? This is one of those.
Drag factor: The duh-duh-duh-dah-dah chorus melody gets repetitive.
Belgium: Blanche – City Lights
An aching cathedral of understated longing, with a blast of Depeche Mode style synth line evoking sodium yellow or mercury white street lights, viewed through the window of a car driven late at night.
Against the huge Amen cadences in the chorus, Blanche’s delicate vocals sound like rose petals fluttering across a busy street. Beautiful, yes, but the kind of beauty that gets lost amidst the noise and frantic activity of a song contest. It’s a song for the radio and your MP3 player rather than the stage, unless there is something absolutely incredible they’re keeping under wraps.
Grab factor: Those chords! Those synths!
Drag factor: Subtlety at Eurovision – a huge risk
Montenegro: Slavko Kalezic – Space
Is this a deep ode to humanity’s infinite smallness compared to the vastness of space or a series of single entendres about shagging?
It’s definitely the latter, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s successful at what it does – Slavko is telling us about the benefits of sensual pleasure and abandoning yourself to dance or passion. The modulation into the chorus goes off like a rocket, and says ‘If you weren’t already on the dancefloor get here right now’. It’s a soundtrack to anonymous 2am kisses on the dancefloor. It’s about joy, and that’s a beautiful thing.
Grab Factor: I have my suit on!
Drag Factor: Are you tired of having fun?
Finland: Norma John – Blackbird
I didn’t get it at first, because I was invested in other songs at UMK and I was at a point in my life where I didn’t want to hear any more sad songs. And this song is very, deeply sad. A Finnish sad song that is as shiveringly dark as the night before the Winter Solstice is very, very sad indeed.
But once you’re past that, yes, it’s gorgeous. If you’re feeling the right way when you hear this, your heart will break in a beautiful way. If not, you might be making a cuppa.
Grab Factor: Leena’s superlative voice
Drag Factor: It’s all down to how you feel.
Azerbaijan: Dihaj – Skeletons
This is a bit different. Dihaj provided stabilising vocals for Samra’s Swedish cast-off Miracle in 2016 and now she’s back and doing her interesting, angular thing at the front of the big stage.
Sonically, it has much more in common with my beloved icy Nordic electropop than anything more typically sourced from the Caucasus. The staging is going to make or break it, because the audience will need to be brought into the world of this strange and alienating song. It is possibly the least appropriate song for the trademark Azeri golden pyro curtain. If they can do it in blue or purple during the ‘drip drop’ middle 8 section, maybe.
Grab factor: Gosh! This is different
Drag factor: Has a chance to be too cold to identify with.
Portugal: Salvador Sobral – Amar Pelos Dois
Simply sublime. Utterly touching and poignant. Appearing out of absolutely nowhere, Portugal find themselves in possession of one of the best and most classic Eurovision songs of any era. A potential standard in the making, a beautiful portrait of bittersweet and enduring love.
I like this a lot. A lot. Salvador’s voice is incredible and he absolutely dedicates himself to music. His sister Luisa’s songwriting appears simple, but is built of beautiful complexities and the jazzy swing of the orchestration will be melting hearts all over Europe.
Grab factor: Intense beauty as a balm to your soul
Drag factor: If you don’t like nice things.
Greece: Demy – This Is Love
This is cheese. A Parthenon-sized slab of organic, artisanally produced feta. Eurodance ad extremis. From the fragrant fromage of the sad piano led first verse to the daft immensity of the pew-pew lasers that bring on the dancey chorus, to the totally camp orchestral breakdown that evokes the intense, baroque passion of symphonic disco and chorus lyrics that prompted such hearty guffaws on Twitter that they ended up changing them. It’s throwaway nonsense and I love it. Except the last line, which is too twee for words.
Grab factor: REACH FOR THE LASERS!
Drag factor: You’re too busy dancing. You’d let this go on for 7 minutes if you had the choice.
Poland: Kasia Mos – Flashlight
It’s not got the uplifting message and anthemic rush of Color of Your Life, and it’s not really edging that much closer to a jury-friendly modern pop vibe, but it’s maybe going to pick up a few more jury votes. Will the Polish televote stun us again this year?
Songwise, there’s a significant deduction for the fire/higher/desire rhyme. The lyrics are bad, but Color Of Your Life wasn’t more than superficially deep.
I just don’t feel very strongly about this either way.
Grab factor: Um.
Drag factor: Well.
Moldova: Sunstroke Project – Hey Mamma
Consulting my musical thesaurus, I note that Epochal Metallophone Gentleman returns triumphantly to the ESC stage. Sunstroke Project have taken on a few post-dancehall trop house rhythms, strapped them to a really mindblowingly daft hook and produced another infectious and totally inappropriate novelty hit.
(What even is a novelty song? I don’t know the definition, but as with art and smut, I know when I see it)
Ach, but it’s fun. I like things that are fun. Therefore I must like this. QED. Right?
Grab factor:The commentator will tell you to pay attention to this one and then the sax honks will get you.
Drag factor: Maybe we go round the chorus one time too many, but then again, someone enjoys the 10 hour Epic Sax Guy video.
Iceland: Svala – Paper
An electric Pat Benatar power ballad carved out of the living permafrost. As with a lot of the Icelandic tunes, it loses some of the magical assonance and sense of mythic poetry when in English, but what we’ve got is still very epic.
If the legendary Nicoline Refsing could be engaged to ʒusʒ up the staging then we could ensure that we create a visual spectacle to match Svala’s toweringly majestic vocals.The contrasting vocal rhythms in the chorus and the chiming descending synths should give a staging director plenty of drama to work with. It’s magnificent. I would still rather have had Daði singing the totally sweet This Is Love, but Paper is a good alternative.
(I am annoyed with myself for falling back on the cliche of chilly Icelandic synth pop, but seriously, Svala isn’t giving me anywhere else to go.)
Grab factor: The hook is instantly there in the intro, Svala does the rest.
Drag factor: Maybe it goes round the chorus one time too many without changing it up?
Czech Republic: Martina Barta – My Turn
The song is pleasant. Martina’s voice is very pleasant indeed. The message of co-operation and solidarity is beautiful. But it’s subtle, and subtle does not do well at Eurovision.
I really want the Czech Republic to do well but, nope.
Grab factor: There’s a lovely vocal ostinato in the chorus
Drag factor: It’s too…beige
Cyprus: Hovig – Gravity
Hearing that Cyprus would be sending an established solo artist with a G:son joint, I was excited and intrigued. But then I heard the song and went ‘Oh.’
There’s just nothing there. I don’t listen to a lot of UK chart radio, so I’m not familiar with the Rag & Bone Man song that everyone says this is like. (Human, is it?)
Also, that’s not how gravity works. And I am willing to hold a seminar in Kyiv for songwriters and artists who want to use gravitational metaphors correctly in their music.
Grab factor: The G:Son bass hook.
Drag factor: Repetitive as.
Armenia: Artsik – Fly With Me
I think that the true legacy of Jamala’s win with 1944 isn’t necessarily the rise of sad female ballads (that was happening anyway) but it is in fact the increase in the number of cool, stylised, unusual sounding songs with hypermodern production. Fly With Me is one of those. From the incredibly simple but insistent bassline to the combination Armenian trad/modern electro breakdown, this is pinging all the bits of my music hipster brain. Like Lovewave last year, it feels like it lacks a bit of a climax, but I’m sure that the Armenians have plenty of budget for pyro and incredible visuals and the staged version will be special indeed.
It prompts me to dance wherever I am. Wherever I am. The freezer section in the Co-op has never seen such sensual moves.
Grab factor: That 2 and a half note bassline.
Drag factor: No big chorus and lengthy instrumental dance breaks are usually a downside.
Slovenia: Omar Naber – On My Way
Grab factor: None
Drag factor: This lasts for three whole minutes.
Latvia: Triana Park – Line
Behind the pink neon cyberpunk outfits and eyeliner-wearing fit drummers, there’s a cool and well-structured electrodance song. It’s not like a rock song, it’s more like a Robyn song. I love the build up of tension that comes just before the first big dance break and the ecstatic rave catharsis as it hits – well, this is absolutely what the contest needs. Then to go back to a subdued verse and build up again? Dynamically, it’s as good as Euphoria. From the national final performance, I don’t think that Agnes’ vocals the same strength and power as Loreen’s, which is my only worry.
The studio version of Line is a firm fave of mine and I hope that the staged live version does it justice.
Grab factor:Visually arresting, will likely look like it ‘belongs’ amid the ESC branding.
Drag factor: The dynamics mean that drag & repetition is largely avoided.
My favourites: Portugal, Latvia, Armenia, Iceland, Greece, Montenegro.