You might notice that these reviews are terribly, terribly late this year. Normally I write them about the time of the Head of Delegations meeting. That was over a month ago now, and I’m actually finishing these off on the plane to Lisbon, where we’re going to settle the matter of which of these songs is the most universal.
That’s the realisation I’ve come to in the months between this contest and the last one. We’re not rewarding songwriting excellence, vocal technique, PR campaigns or innovative staging, we’re rewarding the song that is able to make the most people feel something. All the elements above can help to make your performance into something that makes people feel something, but they’re all useless without that moment of emotional connection.
So when you’re listening, listen with your heart.
Here’s your handy dandy video playlist. Let’s begin.
Azerbaijan: AISEL – X My Heart
Daft as you like, nicely executed template dance-pop like you’d expect from a cash-rich, pop-scene-poor nation like Azerbaijan. They’ve gone further down the template road this year by getting the producer of 2017 zeitgeisty fave City Lights to give the thing a reswizzle. No amount of atmospheric synths can hide that this isn’t Dihaj getting conceptual with a besuited centaur up a ladder. Both of which would be banned this year.
Grab factor: Staging might be ace, hooks a-plenty. Silly lyrics work in it’s favour, strangely.
Drag factor: The total lack of originality except with the deployment of Standard Pop English.
Iceland: Ari Olafsson – Our Choice
What happened, Iceland? Where is the weird small nation that innovates through the cold dark winter months and brings us treats? What is this inspirational song from a lost 90’s devotional film? What is lovely Ari Olafsson doing fronting this? Why?
Grab factor: Ari is a darling. I would love for him to have a much grabbier song.
Drag factor: The song, sadly
Albania: Eugent Bushpepa – Mall
I spend the first couple of months of every year trying not to listen to the song that won Festival I Kenges because I know that whatever they’ve picked in December won’t be the thing that makes it to stage in May. Except this year, it sort of is. Mall is the 3 minute cut of Eugent’s stirring, driving 4:30 minutes of yearning for his distant girlfriend. It’s entirely in Albanian and the language of passion. It’s good. It might even qualify.
Grab factor: Oof, this is nice.
Drag factor: 12/8 heartfelt rock rock ballads might be jarring for the Tuesday night crowd.
Belgium: SENNEK – A Matter Of Time
In which an IKEA visual merchandiser rearranges some mid-priced home furnishings just so and comes up with a lush, slightly nihilistic Bond theme about the dying ebbs of a relationship. Sennek has troubled some with her vocal performances during the preview party circuit, but I’m sure it’ll be alright on the night. Not sure it’s a winner, even performed to perfection.
Grab factor: It sounds reassuringly expensive, and everyone loves a Bond theme.
Drag factor: Does everyone actually love a Bond theme? Can Sennek give us the full majesty of her vocal range?
Czech Republic: Mikolas Josef – Lie To Me
Before I saw Mikolas deliver this live with playback at London Eurovision Party, it was down in my 40s in my rankings, but now I grudgingly admit that a) it’s a bop b) he can sell it and c) he’s a very charming and determined young artist with what it takes to become a major pop star. The lyrics are a total shambles of slut-shaming and grossly biological imagery, but apparently no-one takes lyrics seriously these days and I should calm down. Apparently.
Grab factor: That trumpet hook. Oh my word.
Drag factor: Can Mikolas, his backpack and two his mates fill the stage?
Lithuania: Ieva Zasimauskiate – When We’re Old
This will probably mark my first little blub of rehearsal season when I see it on stage in Lisbon. It’s such a …married… song and I am a married lady who’ll be missing her other half. Ieva’s delivery is so natural and delicate, like a soap bubble on some forest moss, that I expect it to disappear at any moment. It will seem even more tiny and precious between the brass of Czechia and the awesome stomp of Israel.
Grab factor: Shh, I want to listen to the forest nymph singing!
Drag factor: People may go ‘TOO SLOW’ and make a cuppa.
Israel: Netta Barzilai – Toy
Toy was the song in the pre-season that I had to make a determined effort to stop listening to, because I wanted to preserve the mad rush that it made me feel when I first heard it. I first heard it, muffled and crappy, on someone’s phone in Norway. I heard it for the second time via a leak on twitter. For the 3rd through 100th times, I heard it on constant repeat in my actual brain. Then I had to give it a rest. It makes me dance, it gives me attitude and I am so glad that we’ve got Netta in the Eurovision family. I am starting to think that it won’t win, but I would be happy if it does.
Grab factor: Constructed entirely from things that could potentially grab people by the eyeballs, earlobes and brainstem.
Drag factor: We keep saying that a fun time pop record ought to win Eurovision. But will it? Have we as a continent decided that we only give the title to worthy stuff nowadays? Will this look a mess on stage?
Belarus: Alekseev – Forever
I heard many versions of Forever before Alekseev settled on this one. They all sounded similar. It’s a ballad with unsettling minor undertones and the kind of sentiments that a supervillain might espouse to a captive superhero – you’ll be mine forever! In his national final he became his own LED screen, in a custom pair of electrical pyjamas. I would like to make some of those, they sound like a fun arduino project.
Grab factor: Apparently the lad is famous.
Drag factor: There have been poor vocal performances of it, and to be honest for me it really lacks a point of connection.
Estonia: Elina Nechayeva – La Forza
It’s not so much a song as a series of Verdi aria titles arranged to fit a loose rhyme scheme, a showcase for Elina’s luminous but icy cold beauty, an incredible bit of projection mapping and a festival of many of the best notes that live above the stave. It is notably straight faced and lacking in camp, although the Eesti Laul performance in which the hosts did her post-performance interview by poking a mic on a big stick up at her on the podium was a delight. I don’t know whether playing this as a straight art piece is going to work but I don’t care because I think it’s beautiful just the way it is.
Grab factor: An alien beauty shatters the wine glass of your mind with fractal zoom videos. That’s not your average Tuesday night.
Drag factor: Received wisdom is that Eurovision doesn’t actually like the operatics that much.
Bulgaria: Equinox – Bones
Launched amidst a cloud of rumour, Equinox brings together some very interesting voices. Bringing the high, clear tones of Johnny Manuel into contrast with the earthy howl of Zhana Bergendorff and the deep soul vocal of Trey Campbell is fascinating. The vocal blend sounds like they’ve been a band for years, rather than months. For me, the studio version of the song is like a chilly blast from another dimension but the live version, seeing the ebb and flow between the performers gives it the warmth and human connection needed. Hugely impressive.
Grab factor: Incredibly dramatic.
Drag factor: The fact that it’s a construct might turn off people who have been instructed that this year is all about authenticity.
Macedonia: Eye Cue – Lost and Found
Lost and Found is like someone trying to remember how to play Out of Space by the Prodigy from memory, without the proper equipment. A chunky pop sandwich with a delicious reggae filling and delightful garnishes of vocal ad libs. There is potential for a staging catastrophe, which I sincerely hope they avoid. I really like it, but I worry for it.
Grab factor: Buy one song; get another song and a half for free! Also, the bit where the ‘HAVE YOU EVER THOUGHT ABOUT IT?’ kicks in.
Drag factor: Frankensteined songs unsettle audiences, which are timid and fear change.
Croatia: Franka B – Crazy
I like a bit of R&B swing, I like a song that goes ba-ba-ba-da-bah, I like a totally fruity spoken word interlude and I like a tone of slight sexual insanity in a pop song. Then why do I keep forgetting that Franka will be in Semi 1?
Grab factor: Camp British RP spoken word section, yes PLEASE.
Drag factor: Less exciting than the previous three songs and less exciting than two of the 3 songs that will follow it.
Austria: César Sampson – Nobody But You
Handsome Cesar is only three days older than I am, and I think we’ve both packed a lot of incident into our 34 years on the planet. Austria seem to be very happy to be the Eurovision nation that provides a very affable, very friendly performer with a pleasant and positive song that you’d have to be a terrible churl to not want to qualify. Like Running On Air, I didn’t quite click with Nobody But You on first listen, but then as the playlist went round, I found that this was the one where I was hollering along with the backing vocalists as I drove along the M8 to work.
Grab factor: Handsome and polite man sings song of high quality.
Drag factor: Lacks razzamatazz.
Greece: Yianna Terzi – Oniro Mou
I did this one on Juke Box Jury back in March (the one in Norway where we’d had a couple of light ales before the recording) and my sentiments remain the same. It’s very pleasant indeed, it’s a bit of the old Enya gone Hellenic vibe but and I would appreciate getting a massage or some form of spiritual energy treatment whilst listening to it. In terms of Eurovision qualification? Man I have no idea. It’s going to need a full five kitchen sink stage production and vocals that turn spines to quivering jelly.
Grab factor: Guaranteed to align your chakras
Drag factor: As your cares and stresses melt away, so does any way of distinguishing the verse bit from the chorus.
Finland: Saara Aalto – Monsters
I love Saara but I worry that she isn’t the one driving the bus on this. Instead of the knowing winks, high quality showwomanship and total commitment to the Eurovision dream that I was expecting, we seem to have Saara being controlled by people who have a very British view of Eurovision and want her on giant props, singing upside down and cramming a decade’s worth of staging ideas into her 3 minutes. I wish she was going to be belting out Domino in what amounts to a gold version of the Dami Im gown from 2016, but it is what it is. Monsters is fine, but instead of something precious she’s going to be giving us something that’s So Eurovision. Oh well.
Grab factor: Saara’s charisma and big vocals.
Drag factor: They’re going to do something hideous on stage and I will have to watch through my fingers.
Armenia – Sevak Kanaghyan – Qami
Fair play Armenia, this is a very solid man ballad delivered by a very solid bear of a man in a very solid leather jerkin. Doesn’t really fit with the ‘Beautiful Armenian Queens of Folk Influenced Caucasus Pop’ vibe that they’ve had for the past couple of years but whatever. Not sure it will qualify, but it’s a pleasure to listen to Sevak interpret this with such passion.
Grab factor: Armenian sounds so beautiful when sung with such passion and power.
Drag factor: It’s been 10 songs since Lithuania. If the viewers with short attention spans didn’t go and refresh the drinks during Austria, they’re going to do it now.
Switzerland: ZIBBS – Stones
Poor old Zibbs. They’re the best that Switzerland has sent since Sebalter but I worry that’s not going to be enough. Coco and Ste are really lovely, engaging folk but that doesn’t get you points. Stones is a message about rejecting the reactionary fears and hatreds of the older ruling generation, but will being quite good be enough when you’re surrounded by great stuff?
Grab factor: You can sing along with it basically from the end of the first verse.
Drag factor: You can sing along with it basically from the end of the first verse.
Ireland: Ryan O’Shaughnessy – Together
Dammit. I get to posting this set of reviews and I find that I didn’t actually review Ireland but instead got excited and proceeded directly to Cyprus. What a shame, because Ryan is such a lovely dude with a winning attitude (literally – he’s been talking about winning this year) and I want Ireland to rediscover their Eurovision mojo. But I have only two thoughts when I hear Together. 1) Wow, this song is such a downer and 2) We could have had John Lydon instead and that would have been really fun.
Grab factor: Ryan’s vocals are really sweet and strong, and he’s a big fan of a zip up high neck training top.
Drag factor: I just entirely forgot to review this song.
Cyprus: Eleni Foureria – Fuego
FUEGO. I have had the entire concept of pineapples ruined for me by this song. Or possibly enhanced. You see, Eleni’s pop video was sponsored by a major pineapple consortium and now whenever I see a pineapple or general bromeliad imagery my mind goes FUEGO. I am writing this review in a t-shirt with a pineapple on it because of this song. All I see, hear and think about becomes pineapple. FUEGO.
Grab factor: Uptempo song with dancy bits and a game attempt at a pop drop? Yes sir, we can boogie.
Drag factor: No-one will ever truly understand my pineapple jokes.
So that was all of the competing acts for the first semi. In a slight change to my usual format, here are the automatic qualifiers that will be voting in Semi Final 1.
Portugal: Claudia Pascoal – O Jardim
The nonchalantly gorgeous Claudia Pascoal and composer Isaura perform this beautiful song about bereavement as a solo that is sort of a duet. We’ve got three contrasting songs about the death of family members this year – this one has Isaura and Claudia promising to tend the literal and metaphorical garden of their departed relative. It’s gorgeous, subtle and incredibly chill. It’s not so much a lovely horse as a shimmering, dignified unicorn.
Grab factor: Timeless beauty, presence and stillness.
Drag factor: You get the feeling that Portugal still don’t understand how or why they won last year so they’re going to continue to be Maximum Portugal as if nothing ever happened.
UK: SuRie – Storm
For the second year running, we’ve got a top notch performer who is definitely going to give the material their best possible shot. For the, um, 8th year running we’ve got a song that sounds bafflingly like it was written specifically with basic ESOL vocabulary in mind, by someone fulfilling a very tightly written brief. Storm doesn’t have the courage to go full Clean Bandit like it really ought and consequently ambles along pleasantly but will likely not trouble the scorers too much.
Grab factor: All hail SuRie, queen of twitter and this year’s instagram champion.
Drag factor: Why do we keep sending songs that are the lyrical equivalent of TALKING SLOWLY AND LOUDLY WHEN ABROAD?
Spain: Alfred and Amaia – Tu Canción
Oh bless Amaia. Bless Alfred too, for trying to keep up with her soaring, emotive voice. Bless young love and bless the first time a young man realises how truly awesome women can be when you know them, are friends with them and love them. When they won the Lisbon ticket on the strength of their romance whilst cooped up in the Operation Triunfo house, I had ethical worries about the pressure placed on their fledgling relationship by the passion of Spanish Eurofandom. But they seem happy enough, and Tu Cancion is as sweet and sweeping as you’d imagine a duet about the first time you really fall for someone to be. I am glad I’m writing this review on the plane to Lisbon. If I’d written it in March, I might have been a bit more salty.
Grab factor: True love is beautiful, people.
Drag factor: True love is also gross and slightly annoying.