First Listen Review attempts to capture my first impressions of the year’s Eurovision entries as and when they’re released. My opinion is liable to change as certain songs grow on me or get revamped, but based on the principle that most listeners will only hear each entry once (or twice) before voting, hopefully it’ll provide some insight. 

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Germany: Ann Sophie – Black Smoke

Ann Sophie - Black Smoke | Eurovision 2015 Germany

Ann Sophie is the second artist in a row to represent Germany at the Eurovision Song Contest after coming through the wildcard round of the German National Selection, beating out a number of much more established performers in the process.

Since their victory in 2010 saw an increase in confidence and interest in the Eurovision Song Contest, Germany have been tinkering with their approach to choosing an entry – making a valiant attempt to build a Melodifestivalen-style event for their own market. They’ve attracted some fairly big names over the past three years, but evidently they haven’t quite cracked it just yet, as ratings have been low and their last few entries haven’t really made much of an impact with European voters. (They might take comfort in the fact that it took the expanded Melodifestivalen format a full decade to find a Eurovision winner).

This year, the artist chosen by the German public – with an overwhelming 78.7% of the final televote – dramatically declined to take his entry to Eurovision, leaving distant runner-up Ann Sophie heading to Vienna by default. This is not exactly a great vote of confidence for the young singer. Nor is the co-write credit by second-division UK pop-soul singer Ella Eyre – which suggests the track is a leftover from her in-the-works debut album. A rejected singer with a rejected song? It doesn’t exactly scream ‘Eurovision winner’…

But perhaps it’s unfair to let the context colour my perception of ‘Black Smoke‘, which is actually one of the year’s stronger efforts on record. It has that faintly retro pop-soul sound that has proven hugely popular in the charts in recent years thanks to artists like Paloma Faith and Adele. Sophie’s own vocal is a little undistinguished – if anything it sounds like a fair to middling impersonation of Paloma’s affected drawl, but she sells the thing well enough.

Still, it’s hard to escape the feeling that this entry represents a collection of individually decent elements – talented singer, OK song – that don’t manage to hit that sweet spot wherein they become anything more than the sum of their parts. I’m reminded of Nina Zilli’s L’amore è femmina from 2012 – a song which took similar influences and managed to put a genuinely fresh spin on them, thanks in no small part to a highly charismatic singer.

Compared to that performance, Black Smoke can’t help but look and feel rather workmanlike – attractive, competent filler, but filler all the same. After Lena, the Germans should know better than anybody that at Eurovision, personality is just as important as professionalism. Ann Sophie is unlikely to deliver the worst performance on Grand Final night, but there’s a real risk that she’ll end up delivering the most forgettable one.