Why Duncan Laurence’s debut is the pop album we need right now

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Duncan Laurence completely flipped the script when he performed at the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest and took home the big win. The annual song extravaganza is known for its over-the-top and gimmicky performances, but Laurence changed what we’ve come to expect from the event. The Dutch singer/songwriter took a global audience by complete surprise with “Arcade,” a heartfelt ballad performed without any frills, pyro or confetti. It was all about the song and Laurence’s sincere delivery. Viewers loved it and delivered Laurence the win via their televotes.

“Here’s to music first. Always,” said Laurence in his thank-you speech when receiving the winning trophy. It was a clear sign of things to come.

Laurence released his much-anticipated debut album, titled Small-Town Boy, late last month. The LP is a collection of twelve finely-crafted songs that further detail Laurence’s bourgeoning brand of pop. Every song creates a moment with a unique story that string together perfectly as one cohesive effort. Laurence surely wasn’t kidding when he declared, “music first.”

Small-Town Boy is not intended to be a record that’s about the current state of the world. However, Laurence neatly captures feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and separation throughout the album that can easily be applied to the uncertain world we live in today. And herein lies his most significant contribution: Laurence’s storytelling is timeless, and has the ability to resonate far and wide.

The album’s most prevalent example of this is “Sleeping On The Phone.” A definite album stand-out. It’s a hopeful song that Laurence wrote with his American partner in Los Angeles at the start of the pandemic. Dealing with lockdown measures, they had to part as Laurence had to return to Amsterdam. “Sleeping On The Phone” tells a beautiful love story about doing everything you can to stay connected to the ones you love. It’s a meticulously-produced song with sparse instrumentation that pushes Laurence’s moving storytelling to the front.

Other highlights on the album deal with the fear of letting go while ensuring minimal emotional damage. The aptly-titled “Between Good and Goodbye” perfectly describes that shaky grey area ahead of a breakup and encourages listeners to plan their moves with care. Laurence sings, “Why you tryin’ everything to walk out of her life? If you leave now, don’t leave her with the blame. You know she’s gonna take it anyway. Tell her what’s changed.”

“Loves You Like I Couldn’t Do” hits a similar vein telling a tale of the aftermath of a breakup. It’s one of the stand-out ballads on Small-Town Boy.

Album opener “Beautiful” is a gorgeous outpouring of emotion. It’s a nod to all the people close to Laurence who are there with him through the twists and turns of life. Having the support of great friends has been important for Laurence while dealing with his new-found stardom following his Eurovision win. “When my world’s on fire, you kill the flames,” Laurence sings.

That very personal sentiment applies to the current state of the world as well. While we’re trying to cope with grief, challenges of shut-downs, and ongoing separation, this track reminds us to find ways to stay connected to the ones we love the most for support and encouragement. It’s a powerful track and a special one to Laurence — not only for its message, but also because it was one of the first tracks he helped produce.

Laurence’s poignant and hopeful storytelling also comes across in the whimsical “Yet,” a beautiful story about a fictional lover that’s meant to comfort everyone still hoping to find the one. The song is another example of how Laurence is able to diligently shape a narrative that’s universally relatable.

Half-way through Small-Town Boy listeners will seamlessly arrive at the song that started it all — “Arcade,” his Eurovision stunner. It’s a track that changed Laurence’s life and turned him into an instant star. “Arcade” perfectly fits the LP’s greater context with its touching production stylings and personal storytelling.

In fact, “Arcade” gains meaning when placed among the other album tracks. The LP’s collective emotional strength amplifies Laurence’s story about his love for music and using art to find confidence.

“Love Don’t Hate It,” lyrically feels in many ways like a sequel to “Arcade.” It widens the reach of Laurence’s songwriting. The song encourages listeners to be themselves no matter what others say. Whereas “Arcade” is Laurence’s personal story about self-acceptance and perseverance, “Love Don’t Hate It” spreads that message more universally. And here’s a little fun fact: “Love Don’t Hate It” was co-written with Sam Farrar of Maroon 5 who adds an American top 40 flavor to the song.

Written during a getaway to Edinburgh, Scottland, “Figure It Out” is a bit of a sonic departure, striking a more upbeat tone. Again, it’s not written about the pandemic specifically, but boy, it’s perfectly timed with its hopeful lyrics about figuring out a way to come out on top against the odds.

“Figure It Out” is the perfect answer to “Someone Else” that bundles the anxiety many are feeling this year. “Someone Else” is about the mental burden of loss and separation that is impossible to get away from. “Some people drive to be alone, but that’s not where I am. I find my comfort in the chaos of this traffic jam. I need these people, ’cause they’re what’s keeping you out my head,” Laurence sings.

It serves as the poppiest track on the album. That should come as no surprise as Laurence wrote it in Los Angeles with hitwriter Leland who most recently also collaborated with Troye Sivan and Selena Gomez.

Leland also co-wrote “Feel Something,” a track that Laurence started writing in Los Angeles and shared with EDM hitmeister Armin van Buuren who produced the song. It’s a blazing dance-pop number ruled by Van Buuren’s synthetic, hard-hitting production that comes to life with Laurence’s heartfelt lyrics.

“Umbrella” is one of Laurence’s favorites from the album as it’s one of the first songs he helped produce. Getting his hands on the soundboard as a producer gave Laurence the artistic freedom to fully express himself in all facets of the song. It’s a sparkly, seventies-style singer/songwriter production that feels retro in origin yet is forward in execution.

Laurence made an instant impression when he first appeared on 100+ million television screens with a Eurovision performance unlike no other. The collection of songs on Small Town Boy have a similar impact with their raw emotional power and universal appeal. In a time of uncertainty, loss, and anxiety, Duncan Laurence captures precisely how many feel while providing a steady dose of optimism. It’s pop at its best.

Duncan Laurence
Small-Town Boy (Spark Records BV/Universal International, 2020)
Stream on Apple Music

Stories about music and more. Since 2002. Editorial @ Apple • Reach me at @arjanwrites on Instagram

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