Hello there, and welcome to the third round of Eurovision 2020 judgments by Jaz. On this occasion my random draw pulled a Sweden, giving me nothing but boys and making me sing IT’S RAINING MEN at the top of my lungs (so it wasn’t all bad). With the countdown to an unconventional but still-to-be-celebrated ESC week well and truly on, I’m going to waste an uncharacteristically short amount of time and get straight into today’s reviews.
Right here and right now, the spotlight is on Croatia’s Divlji Vjetre, Finland’s Looking Back, France’s Mon Alliée and Lithuania’s On Fire. There’s a couple of controversial (for different reasons) entries on offer, plus a hyped-up favourite and a song that flew under the radar. Keep reading to see what I think of them all – and as always, vote for your favourite of the four when you’re done.
Attention, Damir/Aksel/Tom/The Roop: are you ready for this? Let’s go!
A question to start: if a Eurovision Song Contest is cancelled when you’re representing a country that hasn’t qualified to the final for the last two years, do you chalk up the current year as another failure or do you classify it as a technical success? Croatia, a country currently in that barnacled boat, would probably say neither. 2018 and 2019 saw them send pretty safe ballads to the contest – one contemporary and one written around the time Jesus walked on water – and both times it backfired. This year they chose Ballad No. 3, a.k.a. Divlji Vjetre, which I wouldn’t call dated OR cutting-edge. It sits somewhere in between the two, mostly because it’s a classic Balkan ballad. I tend to think those are timeless and always welcome them to the ESC with open arms (while standing on a rugged yet scenic clifftop on the Croatian coast, of course).
Yep, this is a Balkan ballad in the mould of plenty of previous Balkan ballads (take a shot every time I say ‘Balkan ballad/s’ and you’ll be on the floor by the end of this review). I do wish Croatia would be more adventurous, as I’m almost missing Jacques Houdek at this point (DEAR GOD). Basically, hold the man-ballads for a while once you’ve given Damir his chance, HRT. The song he won Dora with this year is, thankfully, light years away from Roko’s The Dream – both in terms of quality (it’s much higher) and the era it belongs in (as I said, it’s timeless). No, Divlji Vjetre doesn’t break any new ground in its genre, but if you know me then you’ll know I never turn my nose up at a Balkan ballad. As they go, this is far from reaching ‘Željko Joksimović work of art’ status, but I really like it regardless (I’m just wired that way). It checks all the boxes on the mental list I use to rate songs like Verjamem (Slovenia 2012), Moj Svijet (Montenegro 2014) and Kruna (Serbia 2019): it’s dramatic and majestic; the atmosphere is so thick you could swim in it; the instrumentation is lush and deserving of a live orchestra; and there’s at least one moment when goosebumps spring up all over my body. The contrast between the mystical verses and powerful choruses makes the song super dynamic, but everything flows together nicely. It’s all very pleasant. I’m grateful an English version never surfaced – Croatian makes this feel all the more magical, not to mention authentic. As an entry in a competition this could be forgettable, but without that in play Croatia benefits. I can listen to it happily now I don’t have to worry whether or not it will qualify…which I doubt it would have considering it was in the Semi Final of Death, otherwise known as the first.
A song like this does a lot of favours for Damir, like letting him explore his entire vocal range (which isn’t exactly limited). And he’s quite easy on the eye, which adds appeal to the overall package, let’s be honest. Don’t worry, I can appreciate his talents as well as his attractiveness. Here’s hoping Croatia follows Australia and Ukraine’s example by canning their traditional NF for 2021 in favour of sending the same artist again. I reckon this guy has the looks, the personality and the voice (plus the tatts, which I don’t mind either) required to do great things at Eurovision. All he needs is a song that has the quality and grandeur of Divlji Vjetre, but steps outside of the Balkan ballad box a bit more. I plant the seed!
In a line A by-numbers Balkan ballad that still manages to work magic on me 2019 VS 2020 2020 – ironically, The Dream was bordering on a nightmare Ranking #21 Score 8 points
Last year they looked away, this year they were looking back…one thing’s for sure, Finland can’t stop looking places. Even if it means sacrificing the biggest fanwank of the 2020 selection season for the only male artist in the running (sounds like something Sweden would do, actually). Aksel’s UMK win over Erika Vikman was a shocking result, especially to the person who added Cicciolina to their Eurovision 2020 playlist on Spotify about a week before the show. That poor anonymous Vikman stan might have been overconfident, but with good reason – the same reason we were all blindsided by Looking Back’s victory. To sum up, Finland’s rep for Rotterdam wasn’t a foregone conclusion like we’d thought; Aksel won fair and square as per the rules of the NF; and it’s time to move on from this Cicciolina obsession (at least until the OGAE Second Chance Contest kicks off). I’ll be honest, I always thought that song was overhyped *braces for impact of horrified reactions*. What was my favourite from the Finnish line-up, I hear you (possibly) asking?
Well, when it wasn’t Bananas it was Looking Back – sometimes you need a girl band banger, other times you need a dreamy man ballad that makes you reminisce about the past. I might be in the minority, but I really like this track. In fact, I must have been the only person on the planet crying tears of joy when it won rather than weeping with sorrow for men in bear suits lost. It was love at first listen for me, and it’s hard to explain exactly why…so I’ll start with a bit of background info on the song instead. Looking Back was written by three brothers from American pop/rock band Before You Exit (you can tell, I think) plus another American and a Finnish songwriter too. Between them, the five have penned songs for Finland’s Isaac Eliot, Robin and Krista Siegfrids, as well as US a cappella masters Pentatonix and K-pop superstars Monsta X. This particular song is not something you’d hear from a K-pop group or Krista Siegfrids, proof that Aksel’s songwriting team is multitalented. If I had to describe it in one word, I’d say ‘nice’. But so, so nice. There’s not much to it, but I like all the stuff on the shelf – especially the chorus. Everything about that is stunning, from the melody and lyrics to the otherworldly feel of the production (I didn’t want to say ‘atmospheric’ because I say it too much, but that too). And above all, ain’t it the truth that we never know what we’ve got until it’s gone? It’s human nature and something we can all relate to, so a smart subject to address in a song that, had it gone to the ESC, would have relied on the formula mass appeal = success. Also important – at least for baiting juries – is vocal ability, and I adore Aksel’s voice. The song doesn’t push him vocally, which isn’t a bad thing when it means he hits every note. He does come across a little shy on stage, but that just adds to his vulnerability and makes me feel for him. Besides, Looking Back begs for pared-back delivery from its singer. It would be weird with a larger-than-life personality at the steering wheel.
Aksel’s not looking back too far – at 22 he hardly requires a telescope to see his teenage years. But he’s sending out a similar message to the Netherlands’ Grow: getting older and trying to be a fully-functioning adult isn’t always what you expect it to be, and it’s hard to appreciate the carefree days of your youth until they’ve passed (believe me). As if 22, or Jeangu’s 26 for that matter, is old. The lyrics would make more sense sung by someone older – but even though Aksel didn’t have a hand in writing Looking Back, I still buy what he’s saying. He sells it well in his own understated way, and I feel like this is a suitable pairing of singer and song (unlike a few of the other Eurovision 2020 entries that were served up to their artists on a silver platter). This is another song that benefits from the lack of competition now attached to this year’s 41. It’s missing a real “moment” and would have needed an amazing live performance to have a chance at making the final in Rotterdam. And since that was unlikely, Looking Back is better off NOT fighting to be voted for. I would have voted for it, though, had it been in the first semi. I think it’s stunning.
In a line A simple but superb ballad with a message that hits home 2019 VS 2020 2020 by a million miles Ranking #8 Score 10 points
France took their Eurovision 2020 selection très seriously on paper. Not only did they score a song written by Amir – a.k.a. The Hot Dentist™ – with the assistance of John Lundvik and the duo behind Loreen’s Euphoria (some guy called Thomas G:son and some other guy called Peter Boström); they also managed to secure the most iconic place in Paris as the site for their song reveal. Tom Leeb being more appetising than a freshly-baked baguette was the profiterole on top of the towering croquembouche (here come the mixed food metaphors again). It was all so promising! Eurovision-winning Swedes + the freaking EIFFEL TOWER + a man who could propose to me out of nowhere and get a oui = surefire success, right?
Apparently not. Many fans were stunned – and not in a good way – by the cheesier-than-camembert ballad that was The Best In Me, and didn’t think it was worthy of such a spectacular unveiling. But that’s not where the story ends: caving to high-up complaints re: the English lyrics and noting the much warmer response to Tom’s stripped-back acoustic version, the French delegation revamped The Best In Me to the point where it became Mon Alliée, and everybody lived happily ever after. Kind of. This one’s hard for me to judge because I was one of the few who actually liked the original version (guiltily, I might add, like the second serving of ice cream you know you shouldn’t have). I’m not denying it had flaws, and it probably would have bombed in Rotterdam…but now we’re left with this new version, which is an improvement in some ways and a step backwards in others. Safe to say I’m a little confused. I do know I still like this in general though. Mon Alliée keeps the skeleton of The Best In Me intact, but eliminates a lot of the soaring Disney-esque orchestration – leaving a more simplistic sound behind. Too simplistic at times. It does give the song a Me and My Guitar sort of vibe, which I can get on board with, but I preferred the grandiose big-ballad backing myself. I feel like the song’s genre identity was stronger before, and I’m not sure what it’s trying to be now. I think the main issue with the original wasn’t the style, but rather the lame English lyrics in the chorus and even the wording of the title (gag). Bumping up the percentage of French lyrics was a blessing, because the song immediately sounded less cliché (at least to those of us unfamiliar with Français). And now that the main title is in French too, I’m reasonably satisfied. I still wish Mon Alliée was less subdued, but it does have that dramatic bit at the end that stops it feeling totally flat. All in all I like more than I don’t like. The melody is nice, the bridge provides a necessary change of pace, the language switch worked wonders, and Tom’s voice is soothing yet powerful when it needs to be.
I don’t think this was ever the disaster a lot of fans labelled it as, but I also don’t understand why France gravitated towards Swedish songwriters when their own have produced such kick-ass entries lately. They can certainly do better than something this bland (I like it, but it’s not exactly a rollercoaster ride, is it?). Tom has so much potential and the song never explores the best of what he has to offer, ironically. If he gets a second chance in 2021 – which he’d better, because I need more reasons to gaze upon his beautifully-chiselled visage – the new song needs to impress. Fingers crossed something stellar is out there somewhere or waiting to be written by the man himself. Anything that improves on Mon Alliée could get a douze from this easily-pleased Eurofan.
In a line Warm and fuzzy French(ish) pop that was revamped for better and for worse 2019 VS 2020 I worship Bilal, so Roi it is Ranking #33 Score 7 points
I’m trying not to drag national finals into these reviews too frequently, but I had to with Finland and have to again with Lithuania. It’s not like The Roop were controversial winners of Pabandom Iš Naujo! or anything, but I am slightly biased against them because my absolute favourite NF song of the year came from the same show. Obviously I would have preferred that to win (it’s Tave Čia Randu by Gabrielius Vagelis, ICYMI in my selection season best-of post) but I promise I’ll banish the thought to the back of my mind and judge On Fire as fairly as I can. It’s one of two 2020 entries to make a break beyond the usual Eurovision bubble – Lithuania to a lesser extent than Iceland. It’s catchy, quirky and accompanied by dance moves just as memorable and bizarre as the song itself…but could it have been the winner that the odds, at one stage, suggested?
In my opinion, definitely not. I was psyched to see Lithuania leading the bookies’ predictions for that precious few days or whatever it was (checking the odds because they mattered feels like something we did months and months ago, so my memory’s fuzzy). I’m just not a Roop soop-erfan when it comes to On Fire, and I’m confident it wouldn’t have finished final night on top of the scoreboard. Before all of you Lithuanian-loving violent things out there (GERMANY REFERENCE WOOHOO!) come after me with pitchforks, I do like this song. But I don’t love it. My appreciation for Lithuania being more adventurous than last year is strong, and luckily there’s no dumb advice forthcoming here along the lines of ‘If you want to see just open your eyes’ – an instant plus. The song is striking from the start, and as it carries on it sounds simultaneously familiar and like nothing else I’ve heard before. Lyrically it’s lightweight, with that extra-terrestrial sounding hook slotted in between brief verses and repetitions of ‘I feel that I’m on fi-YAH’. That riff specifically reminds me of The X Files theme tune, and I’m down with it. It’s also very similar to the riff in Mahmood’s Barrio, a song I find more fantastic than this (then again, Mahmood could fart into a tin can for three minutes and I’d praise him like a god). I’m not about to cry plagiarism though. I quite like the fact that the degree of separation (ITALY 2016 REFERENCE WOOHOO!) between Mahmood and The Roop is surprisingly small. Anyway…no, there’s that much filling up the run time here, but I don’t mind. It’s repetitious and monotonous as a stylistic choice, not out of laziness. Even so, I do find myself losing interest into the second half, and as much as that hook stands out isn’t enough to win me all the way over. This is a situation where I know the song is good, but I can’t connect with it on a ‘This is AMAZING’ level. If we were to compare apples to apples then I’d say Iceland has more to offer, and that is a song I can connect with (I haven’t reviewed it yet, so there’s a spoiler for you). Maybe if lead singer Vaidotas had a pixelated picture of his own face on the front of his turtleneck, I’d be swayed?
Honestly, there’s little about this that says ‘potential Eurovision winner’ to me. Outside of the studio, I can understand the hype – what really adds to this as a package deal is the live performance. That dance move is one we’ll be doing at Eurovision parties for a long time to come once we can attend them again. Still, I think a strong but not spectacular result would have been on the cards for Lithuania this year. I am internally begging them to reselect The Roop for Rotterdam/wherever 2021, and I’m curious to see what else the band is capable of. They have what it takes to give their country a best-ever placement (if not a win) and I’d welcome a song even more memorable/memeable than On Fire to the next contest.
In a line Off-the-wall pop that makes you want to dance in a very specific way 2019 VS 2020 2020 – I have to reward the risk and the fun factor Ranking #25 Score 7 points
12 down, 29 to go! Prepare yourselves for this round’s ranking, because it’s almost the complete opposite of what a normal person would come up with.
- Finland (10)
- Croatia (8)
- France (7)
- Lithuania (7)
Congrats to Finland for floating my boat. Are you a Looking Back backer too or does one of the other three songs do more for you? It’s time to let me know by voting for your favourite:
As always, drop by the comments and tell me what you think of all four songs I’ve reviewed today. Was Lithuania a surefire winner? Was France destined for 26th place? Say what’s on your mind. As long as it’s about Eurovision, I’ll listen.
NEXT TIME Round 4 of my Eurovision 2020 reviews is approaching, and that means so is Judgement Day for Ireland, Norway, San Marino and Spain. Subscribe to EBJ and/or follow me on the usual socials so you don’t miss it when it goes live!