Eesti Laul 2015: Goodbye to yesterday, hello Vienna (18)
Robin Juhkental's eyes widened, he breathed in as if to speak, and then thought better of it, before shaking his head and shouting something at the camera filming him. Jukhental, a former Eurovision entrant with Malcolm Lincoln, back with his band The Big Bangers, bubbled with voiceless, impotent fury.
For a while, the moment from the first semi-final of Eesti Laul seemed to encapsulate the entire competition. As pundit Peeter Oja passed down his judgement from a padded panic room, the singer's increasingly incredulous face was visible behind his shoulder, the artist trying and failing to make himself heard over someone who patently was not trying to understand the music.
Much was said about Oja's appearance on Eesti Laul 2014; of the adjectives used, “unnecessary” was possibly the kindest description of the contribution of the comedian. His reappearance on the 2015 edition was symptomatic of how Eesti Laul's producers had decided the product was not broken and did not need fixing.
Much of the interest in Eesti Laul 2015, in the run-up to the final, was what was not said as much as what was. Producers raised eyebrows by scheduling the final early, a week before Estonian parliamentary elections, making the entry of Luisa Värk, wife of Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas, in the final 20 acts, however innocent the coincidence, look at the very least like excellent marketing for Rõivas's Reform Party.
However, Estonia proves again and again it is a maturing democracy by its public making light of Eurovision while dictatorships like Azerbaijan and Russia treat it like life-and-death. In the same vein, armed with mobile phones, the public are ever-keen to rebel against anything they feel they are being asked to support. Värk caused a gasp from the Nordea Concert Hall's usually-placid crowd when she gave an incredulous hand-gesture on being placed 10th and last in the final vote.
The truth is, with the right song, Värk could have won. This was a year of patchy quality in the final selection, allowing passage to the final for the nondescript likes of The Blurry Lane and the Kali Briis Band, and the final was crying out for a standout performance. Instead, “Minu Päike” was a love song that, remarkably, lacked both a heart and a recognizable chorus. The singer may have performed her tune on playground equipment, but she will hope for a more positive swing for her husband in polling in a week's time.
By accident or design, Estonia has a winner that we can be proud of; Elina Born and Stig Rästa's dark narrative ballad “Goodbye to Yesterday” is heading to Vienna. Most Eurovision choices tend to be a reaction to that of the previous year. Born and Rästa's elegiac raking-over of a break-up sounds like the polar opposite of 2014's “Amazing” by Tanja, though that song was, at the time, thought by many (including this reporter) to have the goods to win Eurovision outright.
There seems to have been a certain amount of analysis of what was successful in Eurovision in 2014. As presenter Henrik Kalmet said, introducing Elisa Kolk's beautifully-sung “Superlove," the first verse of which was performed suspended from wires, “English language: check. Love song: check.”
If this comment seemed a deeply unkind way to lead into a fine effort from 17 year-old Kolk, whose album is released later this year, it was a reflection on how artists were seemingly looking for a successful formula, rather than creating their own. Rapper and producer Will.I.Am commented recently, “for every door that closes, there's a key to a bulldozer in the car park to break the wall down.” Since the flirtation with rebellion in 2013, when the anarchic Winny Puuh gave many in the establishment a mighty fright in outpolling eventual winner Birgit Õigemeel, Eesti Laul's selectors have opted for polite acts that will eschew the heavy equipment and ask for the key to that door.
As Estonian music's horizons broaden, it seems the majority of entries are still drawn from a narrow background. It was down to outstanding guest band Junk Riot, performing in the Russian language and channelling the greatest post-punk groups in their stagecraft, to give a telling glimpse of the kind of music not making it to the televised stages. They took over the stage much like Joy Division might have if they had found themselves at a stage-school variety show.
Established rabble-rousers Elephants from Neptune, the closest Estonia has to The Foo Fighters, showed a higher plane of professionalism to most other acts, ruling the stage like the titular animals, but could never quite escape a frustrating and misguided skepticism among some judges and public voters as to whether Eurovision is the right place for a rock song.
Robin Juhkental and The Big Bangers brought the joyous abandon of Dexy's Midnight Runners to the final, with their singer seeming like the person who was taking the competition the most seriously. Daniel Levi made it through to the final three alongside Born, Rasta and Kolk. Levi's guitar getting limited use in “Burning Lights”, a pop-rock tune catchy enough to sound as though from the pen of Max Martin when the Swedish songwriter ruled the pop world. However, the lead singer, looking like a gene-splice of Justin Bieber and Tanel Padar, got a great workout, leaping onto a crowd who carried him for the final chorus. “Burning Light," along with the eventual winner, is one of two songs entered which have instantly-hummable choruses.
“Goodbye to Yesterday” could trace its genesis to a variety of songs. It has a similar murky feel to Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue's murder ballad “Where the Wild Roses Grow," while melodically it is reminiscent of Gotye's “Somebody that I Used to Know." Perhaps the most recent reference point was the acclaimed Dutch Eurovision entry from last year, The Common Linnets' “Calm After the Storm." Another act clearly listening carefully to country duets, although taking a more positive outlook on life, was Triin Niitoja and John4, whose song “This is Our Choice” soared like Brad Paisley and the best of 21st-century Nashville.
Tanja had her moment in the sun, too. The indefatigable Ms. Mihhailova, possibly tired of performing “Amazing” in its original form over and over again, opened the final concert with an electrifying mash-up of that song with Deorro's club banger “Five Hours." So revitalized did the year-old song seem, and so incredible was the performance, that it can only be hoped we see Born and Rästa performing their song in a year's time over the music for “Bugatti” by Tiga, the band surrounded by dancers.
It would be wonderful if Estonia got behind “Goodbye to Yesterday," a song that generated a huge pre-competition buzz among fans, and is fronted by the passionate and likeable Born, and Rästa, one of the best and most prolific songwriters currently working in Estonia, a member of two excellent bands in Traffic and Outloudz. Notwithstanding relative success for Ott Lepland in 2012, Estonia has not had a song with such a contemporary, international, sound for some time. Perhaps a good showing in Vienna for such classy songcraft might persuade ETV's selectors to loosen the reins and cast the net a little wider for entrants in 2016.