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Estonia: Jüri Pootsmann – Play

Jüri Pootsmann - Play | Eurovision 2016 Estonia

Jüri Pootsmann was the clear winner of Estonia’s national selection, with a lead of over 10,000 votes on runner-up Laura Remmel.

Over the past eight years, Estonia’s national selection show Eesti Laul has evolved into one of the strongest and most distinct in Europe, an excellent example that you don’t necessarily need the scale or the budget of a Melodifestivalen-style show to create a diverse and engaging public platform for selecting a Eurovision entry.

One of the show’s defining features is a strong focus on promoting Estonian music and catering to Estonian tastes first and foremost, rather than fixating on what constitutes a good song for Eurovision. This has the consequence of throwing up some delightfully atypical Eurovision entries, of which last year’s moody alt-country ballad Goodbye To Yesterday was a popular example.

The writer and male half of that entry, Stig Rästa, also co-wrote the winning song this year, Play by 21-year old Jüri Pootsmann, who had previously won Estonia’s Search for a Superstar show in 2015. Pootsmann has a strikingly deep, lived-in voice for his years, and his vocal style is a good match for Rästa’s brooding composition, which begins with a desolate piano and strings opening verse before shifting gears into an unexpectedly bluesy chorus.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this is a good song on its own terms, with high quality songwriting and a cool, radio-friendly vibe. In terms of the Eurovision Song Contest, I have a feeling it’s going to be a tougher sell. Sonically, it’s not a million miles away from Goodbye to Yesterday, but what it really lacks is the sense of narrative that entry delivered. I listen to Play and appreciate the craftsmanship, but as a song it doesn’t take me anywhere, and ultimately I’m not really sure what it wants me to feel.

This lack of an entry point could seriously hurt it on the big stage in May, particularly given it’s been placed in one of the most competitive semi finals in recent memory. Pootsmann’s vocals shouldn’t be a problem, but at Eesti his stage presence was icy and severe, underpinned by a dark, blood-red backdrop behind him. That darkness suits the song, but it risks coming across as morose and alienating to the viewer. Without the dramatic storytelling of Goodbye to Yesterday or the emotional sucker-punch of a song like Silent StormI’m struggling to see why the casual viewer would be compelled to pick up the phone for it. That’s a real problem, and it could cost Estonia a place in the finals that many fans have assumed is a foregone conclusion.

Qualification prospects

Surprisingly bleak when looked at with an ice-cold eye. Fans of this type of music are likely to enjoy the Hungarian and Dutch entries too, and both of those are far more hooky and accessible. Add four countries with 100% qualification records and highly favoured entries from Armenia, Croatia, Iceland and Malta and you’re looking at a very tight race for a Saturday night showing. One day soon, I fully expect Estonia’s willingness to take musical risks to pay off with a second victory. This year, I think it’s going to see them left on the sidelines.