Wherever chins are stroked, you often hear that one band or another are so much better live than on record. That’s a given. Most things are better louder and in your face, the aura of the authors’ presence in the room supercharging the experience.
Christine and the Queens are better live than on record, but in a different way. With no disrespect intended to Christine’s debut album, Chaleur Humaine – a top-notch pop product whose taut, slick surfaces mask deep reserves of emotion, certified five-times platinum in France, out here last month – but her music is meant to be danced and lit up as much as it is played or sung.
It says “pop” at the top of this page, but it could just as easily have said “dance” or “art”, so physical and visual is Héloïse “Christine” Letissier’s performance. Four male band members and four male dancers are crammed on to the small stage of Koko, when she usually plays to far bigger audiences in her native France. Madonna has repeatedly declared herself a fan, as have Lorde and Mark Ronson.
This isn’t “art” or “dance” in the forbidding sense, either. Every so often, the slight, drilled Letissier and her dancers take a break from her consummately crafted synth-pop to cut loose to a party tune – Pump Up the Jam by Technotronic or Chaka Khan’s I Feel For You. Months and months of touring this shape-shifting album, first released in French in 2014 and reworked for the US market last autumn, means “Christine” and her dancers could do these routines in their sleep. You get the feeling that Letissier lives the tunes in her feet as much as in her ears.
It was nightclubbing in London that started it all, too. Letissier took refuge here some years ago to escape a devastating breakup, ending up at a Soho nightspot – the defunct Madame Jojo’s – where drag queens took her under their wing. There is an element of drag to Letissier’s act too. She’s not androgynous exactly – she wears a simple black top and trousers and shakes her long hair. More of a counter-drag, if you like, mindful of the words of RuPaul that we are born naked; the rest is drag.
As she reels out much of Chaleur Humaine, but cuts from its formative EPs, too, Letissier’s symphony of head, shoulder, hip and hand figures drip with the fierceness of contemporary R&B, while avoiding all the sexualised cliches female pop performers usually incorporate. She uses mime, shadow puppetry, you name it. As a child, Letissier was obsessed with Michael Jackson, and his influence is written all over her moves. But she is physically up to date as well, popping out sequences of little jerks that recall the absurdist jitterbugging of gifs.
For the magnificent iT (chorus: “I’m a man now”), Letissier affects a manspread throughout, flexing a biceps, then another, but not with comedic exaggeration, just a kind of precise curiosity. The song is scheduled to be used on an episode of HBO’s Girls, and the news was recently greeted by Letissier with a few new dance moves, posted on her Facebook page.
Even the lights are dancing. A few songs in, neon bars descend from the rafters and proceed with their own balletic workout. At the end of the magnificent Tilted, the band (Metronomy associates Gabriel Stebbing and Michael Lovett, plus Bastien Doremus and Paul Prier, who recorded as Toys) and the dancers wander the stage, heads tilted up, watching the lights ascend again for what seems like ages. It’s immensely French. At one point Letissier demonstrates how she can now turn a stumble into a dance move. It is a metaphor, really, for transforming quirks into strengths, something her songs address in more detail.
A significant portion of Chaleur Humaine is about gender identity. Letissier even announces at the start of the gig that she is basically “a little boy, dreaming of being Beyoncé”; a sentiment echoed in the song Half Ladies, a nagging pop tune so sweet and accomplished, it transcends the cultural studies department by some distance. Letissier’s actual greatest hit is about an “extravagant” boy she saw mocked on public transport. She was too cowardly to come to his defence, she says, but wrote the dreamy, transcendent R&B track Saint Claude as an apology.
Perhaps even more conventionally striking is the ballad Jonathan, a duet with Perfume Genius (he appears on a video backdrop tonight), where Letissier’s properly lovely voice chews over a relationship where her lover would not meet her out in daylight. “Je te croyais au-dessus des lois,” she marvels – “I thought you were above the law” – as the scales audibly fall from her eyes.