Sometimes it’s hard to believe that a record as otherworldly and against trend as Christine and the Queens’ debut album, Chaleur Humaine, was so commercially successful. When you also throw bilingual into that mix, and in the most Remain way possible, then the surprise is even greater that this was the highest selling UK album of 2016.
It took a while, though. Breathtaking, thrillingly subversive live performances from a previously unknown artist who could sing and dance without also peddling the usual tired gender-specific tropes helped build a reputation and buzz. She had captured something that was wanted and loved.
When talking about its follow-up, and what turned out to be Chris, Héloïse Letissier spoke constantly about sexuality, and sex in particular. She expressed a desire to create new music that allowed her to do this: a looser and more primal sound.
‘Girlfriend’, the album’s first single, introduced the short-haired and more purposefully physically defined persona of Letissier called Chris. Sonically there was a definite shift and the chilly electronic preciseness of Chaleur Humaine has been replaced by a retro-80s boogie and funk aesthetic, most closely aligned with two of the definite icons of that era, Prince and Michael Jackson.
‘Comme si’ opens Chris with a blast of the Purple One’s synths and sexual positioning and ‘Damn (What Must A Woman Do)’ builds on this even further; sweat, androgyny and boom boxes flood the consciousness.
‘The Walker’ and ‘Doesn’t Matter’ are more introverted and introspective, and mix up what could be a divisively nostalgic musical soundscape with more contemporary edges and embellishments. Both tracks are as good as anything on Chaleur Humaine.
As the album continues, Letissier switches between her newly discovered sexual liberation (and tracks of this nature are in the majority) with stranger and more sombre songs such as ‘What’s Her Face’ – where Letissier recollects how invisible she felt when she was younger and growing up.
Much has been made of her sexual awakening and freedom in recent interviews, including her frustration of working with male producers, and her rejection of album sessions with Mark Ronson and Damon Albarn. It’s hard not to see that these two things are not connected.
Letissier has not come out as gay or bisexual but neither has she denied that her sexual orientation could fall within these areas. Her power is more defined by her gender blurring and clearly this is the message of this record: don’t let anyone pigeon-hole you based on social structures and conditioning.
The last 3 tracks of Chris best demonstrate and are the strongest examples of where Letissier finds herself currently.
‘Feels So Good’ continues with the thick, funk sound that dominates the record and sets positive emotions against contradictory and skewed situations. Meanwhile, ‘Made Some Sense’ is a very pretty and strongly written ballad that would not have sounded out of place on Janet Jackson’s classic album from 1986, Control.
This leaves ‘The Stranger’, an appropriate name for a song that stylistically sticks out like a sore thumb from the rest. With its harpsichord-heavy, late-90s R&B slant and abstract lyrics, it’s one of the album’s oddest and most interesting moments. If you could have imagined how Letissier may have progressed and moved on from the sound of her debut, then this would be it.
Christine and the Queens have a massive audience now and this record deserves to heard by a lot of people. It is bold, confident and resolutely, wonderfully queer.
Where Chris sometimes falls down is in its adoption of a sound that is referred to frequently and often by artists who want to demonstrate their music history chops. Prince, Michael, Janet and Madonna are to be found throughout Chris’ musical DNA and this can be derivative where the songs are not strong or individual enough to stand up to the obvious comparisons.
Where Chaleur Humaine was the sound of an artist forging their own musical identity, Chris is a record that is prepped for mainstream takeover and where some of the original uniqueness has subsequently been compromised. Christine and the Queens however remain a genuinely exciting proposition and are a long overdue force to propel pop out of its doldrums and into a more provocative and challenging position once again.