Christine and the Queens: Chaleur Humaine review – a perfect antidote to pop conservatism

France has made this brilliant, provocative artist one of its biggest mainstream stars. Could Britain ever do the same?

Last week, two contestants on the BBC1 talent show The Voice performed a cover of Anohni’s Hope There’s Someone. This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a particularly extreme or challenging piece of music – it’s a ballad with a beautiful, lambent melody and profoundly moving lyrics that address a universal theme. Nor is it a particularly obscure song. The opening track from a decade-old Mercury prize-winning top 20 album, it has enjoyed an afterlife that has included soundtracking Dr Who offshoot Torchwood and being covered by both English folkies the Unthanks and EDM DJ Avicii. And yet it still felt startling to hear it sung on a Saturday evening light-entertainment show. Mainstream pop music in Britain – the kind on which programmes such as The Voice are supposed to be predicated – has seldom seemed more conservative than it does today: it sometimes feels as if it is being stringently policed to ensure that nothing strange or fantastic or novel, and indeed no one in possession of an identifiable personality, gets in. Artists such as Anohni – probing gender issues, informed by performance art and politics – can expect to be automatically confined to the margins, no matter how lambent their melodies or universal their lyrics.

It’s worth contrasting this state of affairs with regard to the career of Héloïse Letissier, who records under the name Christine and the Queens. In her native France, she is a huge mainstream star. Chaleur Humaine, the album on which her UK debut is based – with some of its French lyrics translated to English, and a few new, English-language tracks added – has spent most of the last two years in the French top 40, spawned a string of hit singles, earned Letissier two awards at the Gallic equivalent of the Brits, and a guest appearance when Madonna played Paris in December. Perhaps that is a result of Chaleur Humaine’s obvious pop smarts: listening to the melody of Saint Claude, floating serenely above a stark backdrop of stammering beats and delicate slivers of electronics, you can see how it ended up a top 5 single. Or perhaps they find Letissier the kind of endlessly fascinating, provocative artist whose very presence makes pop music a more interesting place: a pansexual woman “obsessed with the idea of having a dick and being a man”, who name-drops both Michael Jackson and the German modern dance legend Pina Bausch as influences, and turned to music after being co-opted by a group of London drag queens, hymned in her stage name.

Whatever the reason, it’s worth holding out the possibly vain hope that something similar might happen in the UK. Chaleur Humaine is a rich and rewarding album that works whichever way you slice it. If you want to take it as an extended musical treatise on queer identity and non-binary sexual orientation, there’s plenty here to keep you occupied. Take, for example, the opening track iT’s declaration of “I’m a man now and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.” (Later in the song, an unconvinced Greek chorus suggest: “She draws her own crotch by herself but she’ll lose because it’s a fake.” Or take Half Ladies’ defiance in the face of abuse: “I’ve found a place of grace … every insult I hear back darkens into a beauty mark,” she sings, before another fantastic chorus – one on which her love of Michael Jackson shines through – sweeps the song along.

If you just want to treat it as a collection of beautifully wrought pop music, then it functions fantastically as that, too. The sound Letissier and her collaborators – sometime Metronomy affiliates Ash Workman and Gabriel Stebbing – have constructed is hugely appealing: a simultaneously intricate and spare lattice of softly glowing electronics and occasional misty hints of R&B and hip-hop, not least on No Harm Is Done, which features the rapper Tunji Ige and piano. The songwriting is perfectly poised, subtle and restrained without being wilfully opaque: it never clobbers you over the head, nor do you have to unpick the songs to find the tunes. There’s a deeply affecting combination of delicacy and force behind her collaboration with Perfume Genius, Jonathan, or Safe and Holy’s combination of pattering hi-hat, piano and marooned sweeps of ravey synth.

It’s informed by a sharp musical intelligence – Paradis Perdus takes an exquisitely orchestrated, vaguely Pink Floydish track from a 1973 album by French singer Christophe and Heartless from Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak, identifies a common mood between the two, and melds them together seamlessly – but one that it chooses to wear lightly. You never find yourself in the presence of music that sounds self-consciously clever. Everything flows easily, nothing jars.

“A song is like a virus,” Letissier told an interviewer last year, “everyone can have it.” It’s a lovely sentiment, and Chaleur Humaine bears that line of thinking out: for all the seriousness of the issues the lyrics explore, it always feels like a pleasure rather than hard work. The question of whether it will prove as infectious in the UK as it has on the continent is a tough one: the innate conservatism of mainstream British pop sits pretty uneasily with an artist who clearly thinks pop music can be both an unalloyed pleasure and a conduit for ideas, a means of provoking thought, a world in which you can reinvent yourself at the same time. The question of whether it deserves to be is more easily answered.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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