In the weeks leading up to the Eurovision Song Contest 2014, I’ll be reviewing each of the 37 entries competing this year. Today I’m looking at Azerbaijan, who are performing eighth in the first semi final. They will be represented by the Dilara Kazimova with ‘Start a Fire’.

Azerbaijan Flag

Azerbaijan: Dilara Kazimova – Start a Fire

Azerbaijan are arguably Eurovision’s most significant new player of the past decade. Not only do they share a 100% qualification record with Greece, Russia and Ukraine, they also hold the unique distinction of never yet finishing outside the top ten. Last year the validity of this achievement was brought into serious question when rumours emerged of televote manipulation and points-trading with other juries. To quote Dusty Springfield, nothing has been proved, but combined with their questionable human rights record and their habit of outsourcing their entries to professional Swedish musicians every year, Azerbaijan are a difficult country to love in the contest. For me their entries tend to be slick, competitive but rather cold and lacking in character.

Dilara Kazimova Azerbaijan 2014The reliance on Scandinavian songwriting remains this year, but ‘Start a Fire’ does at least exhibit a little local flavour thanks to the distinctive sound of the düdük, a reed instrument popular in the region (it’s also known as a Balaban). Performed by Dilara Kazimova – a powerful vocalist who has paid her dues with several previous appearences in the Azerbaijani national selection – it’s a surprisingly modest effort by Azerbaijan’s standards. Rather than hitting you with an instant hook, it takes its time to unfold, maintaining a slow, mournful pace throughout and despite some attractive string flourishes it ends on much the same note as it begins.

On first listen I found the song terribly boring for all of the above reasons. However, Start a Fire has proven to be one of the biggest growers of this year’s contest for me. The ethnic instrumentation really stands out, and Kazimova’s vocal has a lovely restraint to it. Unfortunately, as is often the way with second-language performances, her pronunciation means the lyrics are difficult to decipher in places, which is a shame as they’re rather gorgeous. The best thing about the song though is the lack of desperation. Pretty much uniquely amongst Azerbaijani entries, it doesn’t feel like it’s been written solely to win the Eurovision Song Contest.

This is not to say that it won’t do well. Azerbaijan always do well, and a song of this quality is unlikely to break their run of good fortune. A memorable, high-budget performance is more or less assured, and this should receive a warm reception from juries and televoters alike – with or without the aid of dubious behind the scenes machinations. It’s not a winner, but ‘Start a Fire’ should have no problem hitting the top 5 in this semi on the way to a respectable top ten placing in the final. For once, I won’t even resent them for it.

Prediction: Qualifier