The Christine and the Queens project is guided by one woman, the French synth-pop auteur Héloïse Letissier. At home she is a known quantity: She capped off a string of EPs and touring gigs with Lykke Li and Woodkid with her debut Chaleur Humaine in June of 2014. But the U.S. release this fall of Humaine, repackaged as a self-titled debut, marks her introduction to the American market: Some of the French lyrics were redone in English, accompanied by a couple of Anglophone bonus tracks. As with the French edition, the record starts with an unequivocal declaration of her arrival. “I’m a man now,” she sings in a bold voice on “iT”, “And there’s nothing you can do to make me change my mind.”
A few verses later, she offers up a line whose regal, gory quality seems worthy of Lorde orKanye: “I’ll rule over all my dead impersonations.” Out of context, it sounds like a very 2015 pop move: burying past incarnations of yourself that the public never even witnessed and calling yourself king from the off, fueled by nothing but divine belief in your own selfhood. Letissier has the chops and charisma to pull off this role, too: “iT” has gorgeous minimal production—just a sputtering beat, tarnished synth glimmers, and canny employ of sprite-like backing vocals. Her expressive voice leads the lone melody, at first vulnerable and then rasping with defiance.
But it’s a feint: Letissier spends the next 11 songs pulling back from this grandstanding (which was inspired by her discarding her feminine identity as a teenager) to explore the nuances of her queer identity and what that means in private and public spheres. On the way, she comes out with some pin-sharp lyrics to rival collaborator Perfume Genius’ “no family is safe when I sashay,” full of daring and vulnerable truths. “Science Fiction” unravels on spacey burbles that underpin the alienation she and her partner feel when out in public: “They look at me when I stare at you… In this sea of eyes, every move’s a coup.” Letissier reclaims the discrimination she experiences for not passing as a prescribed gender ideal on “Half Ladies”, which moves between percussive gasps indebted to Michael Jackson and pared-back, angular funk: “Every insult I hear back/ Darkens into a beauty mark.”
That particular image seems to reference the source of her own liberation. A few years ago, beset by depression, Letissier ran away from college in Paris and crossed the Channel to London, where she was taken under the wing of three Soho drag artists. They heard her humming and encouraged her to make music, so she locked herself away for weeks, garrote-style, as she taught herself to write. Letissier named her act Christine and the Queens in tribute to her saviors, an act that also highlights her knack for self-mythologizing. At the end of Christine and the Queens, there is a second arrival, “Here”, a work of unbroken tension hooked around disintegrating, crackling beats and an organ’s glow. She sings, in French, “I evolve in living trace.”
The production of Christine and the Queens follows that mystical sense of becoming. Most of the songs are built from tapestries of microbeats that have an organic, sinewy feel, unfolding with the intricate flow of a centipede’s spine. She often forms strong rhythms from a surprisingly delicate percussive backbone—”No Harm Is Done” has a feather-light, trap-indebted beat that sounds as though it was sampled from recordings of magnesium fizzling across water. Tiny shifts in impact or intensity can have a massive effect: The simple beat that hardens halfway through “Tilted” adds a new level of confidence to Letissier’s tale of a wonky but thriving relationship. It’s a constellation of experience, the sense of a body being animated, twitching and jerking into existence. Letissier literally espouses the power of movement on “Safe and Holy”, but the heavy beat and synth-scapes drown out the effect that flows naturally elsewhere.
Letissier’s melodic sensibility is as strong as her subtle percussion. “Paradis Perdus” is the work of a real pop scholar, an interpolation of Christophe’s 1973 song “Les Paradis Perdus”and the chorus of Kanye West’s “Heartless” that unites their common sense of loss over soft piano and a knocking beat. “Jonathan”, Letissier’s duet with Perfume Genius, confronts a lover whose internalized shame means that their relationship is only acknowledged by night. It’s a song of immense grace, the funereal pace guided by exquisite synths and expanding strings. “Can you walk with me in the daylight?” Letissier asks, her head held high.
Christine and the Queens is a beautiful, important negotiation of these liminal states at a time when the media is quick to bandy about the term “post-gender” as if the hard work is done. Her music is bold and fully formed, but Letissier unpeels the façade of outer confidence to shine a light on the way that queer identity requires constant negotiation, to deal with the world’s often unforgiving gaze and the one that can come from within—on “Safe and Holy”, she admits that her own eyes “mock and judge” her. It’s empowering, bold, and vulnerable, and made for dancing. Chaleur Humaine translates as “human warmth”, and the album makes good on that intimacy. You get the sense of Letissier guarding her own precious, burgeoning fire, and inviting listeners to share in its glow.
Release Date: October 16, 2015
4.No Harm Is Done (feat. Tunji Ige)
8.Jonathan (feat. Perfume Genius)
9.Narcissus is Back
10.Safe and Holy