Of all the surprises that hit across the world in 2016, few (if any) were as welcome as Christine and the Queens’ striking debut record Chaleur Humaine. Coming from seemingly nowhere (though the record had been steadily gathering attention in her native France since 2014), it found a welcoming home on the back of one of the most fascinating and beguiling pop singles of the decade and some remarkable multi-faceted live performances, including managing to almost single-handedly save my Glastonbury Festival the morning after the Brexit vote seemed to irreversibly crack Anglo-French relations and had me in a state of utter despair before her mercurial intervention.
Two years on, and with Héloïse Letissier now as a fixture of everyday radio and television (despite being a brilliantly subversive champion for the LGBT movement, equality and the fringes of culture), her second record comes with a scrutiny that can disarm and blunt artists who seek the dirtier, more tangled side of the musical road. The biggest relief then, is that on Chris, she loses none of her instinct for richly-textured electronic beats, pop nous and melodic intelligence. And while there is little in terms of significantly broadening the musical palate, the record’s sheer unwillingness to compromise to standard thematic and lyrical templates provides a firm and confident step forward into the mainstream of pop without shaking any of the weirdness that made Chaleur Humaine so instantaneously ambiguous and enthralling.
If there is one key difference on Chris, it’s that Letissier is more confidently embracing her life, style and sexuality. While her first record was almost painfully shy at times in its intimacy and subtlety, here she pushes out with poise and intent. This bold and confident pansexuality plays enticing games throughout the record - including the funk-framed clamour of ‘Comme si’ (“Cause my nerve passes for rude / I'm the warmth that now exudes”) and the glorious LA disco-funk of ‘Girlfriend’ (“Yes sir, I am wet, for I abandoned my fame in the lake / Let’s see now how fast you’re breathing and how long this will all take”) absolutely shimmer and glow with unabashed female sexuality and confidence. But equally, Letissier flips this with a keen and scornful eye on tracks such as ‘What’s-her-face’ which maps a fishing line from the childhood sorrow of the outsider to being somehow still haunted by the same fears into the present day: magnified by the public gaze. Additionally, there is the excellent ‘Damn (what must a woman do)’ which turns pure sexual desire into a deep frustration at being unable to find gratification in a world that subverts a woman’s sexual desire into something almost shameful and to be dismissed. Of all the fine elements to Chris, this bold and determined subtext of female sexuality is hugely welcome and eloquently expressed; never more relevant in the current climate. Yet Letissier still has the solemnity and humanity to end on ‘The Stranger’ – a song that considers that regardless of one’s own inner demons, there is always something else darker and distant beyond our borders to remind us of what we possess, and how the skill of empathy may be the key towards a better society. It is a sombre and pointed reminder of the humanity that lies between and within us all, and stridently reminds you that only someone who understands this balance between light and dark can truly write in a universal musical script.
In terms of sonic textures, apart from the increased focus on deeper beats, major-key changes and disco-funk shotgun reverberations, much will be welcomingly familiar on Chris in that it sublimates that fluid and sensual blend of synthesisers, reverberating beats and intertwining melodies that made the debut record so enticing. But here, it’s less about the categorisation of the sound and more about the sheer confidence and focus of the message and the bolder, brighter font in which it is expressed and delivered. Chris is an album delivered for a wider audience, but still with a subversive and unique texture and emotion that loses nothing of the vacillating energy of the subculture whilst making a confident play for the biggest stages. It is rare for an artist to come along who can do this with such invention, confidence and starkly honest and eloquent expression whilst playing confidently around the lines of sexuality, emotion and self-empowerment within the confines of a pop song. Chris is not Letissier’s masterpiece – that is surely yet to come – but it is a glorious statement of intent and a beacon of rainbow neon illuminating the current cultural and social landscape. This is a record for outsiders, for pop lovers, for the dancers, the lovers. And above all, for women. This is your world – embrace it, love it. And dance. Definitely dance…
8David Edwards's Score