Originally published on Boom Bang a Blog, Feb 2010.
There was a point when we Eurovision watchers didn’t know that Alexander Rybak’s ‘Fairytale’ wasn’t going to win the Song Contest for Norway. I think it was just before he sung the track on the Norwegian National Semi-Final. The smart money was straight on his name at the Bookies the next morning. A few months later and the world realised what we had been telling them since that first performance.
But Rybak is more than a single song wonder, as his début album, cunningly called ‘Fairytales’ proves. It’s a short showcase, but what a delight it is.
Starting with ‘Roll With The Wind’ this is a chirpy opening track that calls musically back to his Eurovision success. There’s a strong rhythm going on through the song; you can just about picture some Cossack dancers behind the cheeky Rybak; it all goes quiet so you can hear his violin… I think this replaces the standard Eurovision key-change moment, but as your ears are waiting for something it makes you comfortable and notice that this is something different.
The difficult second track isn’t difficult at all, as the familiar cue for the third most successful Eurovision song ever* pops up and you realise that Rybak is a gifted composer, because while all these songs have his trademark sound, they all stand alone as little individual gems.
This is Rybak’s album and as a 23 year old, he’s got just enough life experience to build in more emotion and motif than most. So I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader where this line comes from… “But I know a magic dolphin, swimming above the world, and in my dreams it promised me, someday I’ll find my girl.”
There’s a huge amount of recognisable ideas in the album. Searching for love, looking for a girl, not being worthy of her, and while it’s never directly signposted, Fairytales as an album feels like a riot of enthusiasm and hormones distilled into musical form. The mixing of Western European pop sounds and riffs, with music and rhythm from Eastern Europe provides a heady mix of something one step removed from either area, but close enough to not scare the mass market.
The album has a certain streak of innocence running through it, and ‘Funny Little World’ showcases that. The second single from the album has plinky guitars and wouldn’t sound out of place in a TV commercial for a certain supermarket and Jamie Oliver on his scooter with a beautiful girl waving to him from a thatched cottage in the countryside.
And then comes side two.
If this had been 1980, Fairytales would have been the sort of album you find in a dusty record shop, and after the first run of naïve numbers on side one, you’d flip the record over (kids, look it up on Wikipedia) and after listening to the back four, start wondering about what happened to Rybak in the writing process.
My money is that after doing the happy half, someone introduced him to the entire works of Morrisey.
‘If You Were Gone’ has that happy with life sound suddenly turn dark, as the mood turns sombre and reflective. Rybak’s music matures and grows up as you go through the album, for a first release this is a stunning journey in just nine tracks. As the reality of life creeps in, ‘Abandoned’ showcases Rybak’s voice as it almost nakedly takes on the rest of the world single handedly, switching from wrath and aggression to regret and loneliness. I would say it’s stunning but ‘Thirteen Horses’ is up next and I’d run out of describing words.
‘Thirteen Horses’ is the powerhouse track of the album, telling the story of the horses left behind in a shipwreck at sea, the hopelessness of their situation, and that they simply do not recognise what has befallen them. And it takes some careful listening to work it, even though the raw emotion is right there on the surface.
‘Songs From A Secret Garden’ brings the official album to a close, and while melancholy, Rybak’s violin takes the lead and acts as both a musical salve and a wrapper for the whole album. Depending on your version you may have some bonus tracks filling out the time, but the 35 minute running time works. There is a thread running through the album, it’s coupled with wonderfully layered song-writing, brilliant singing and memorable performances all round.
As Rybak matures as a composer I think he’s going to churn out many more powerful albums, but Fairytales will always be the first, and you never forget your first.
Fairytales, by Alexander Rybak, is published by EMI in the UK and available via Amazon.
*”Third?” I hear you cry, “but he’s scored more points than anyone else!” Yes that’s true, but there are a lot more countries voting nowadays, so how can you compare him to the Brotherhood of Man? By the percentage of points scored compared to points available. Which puts ‘Save Your Kisses For Me’ in first place, Katrina and the Waves ‘Love Shine a Light’ in second, and Rybak in third. So there.