Christine and the Queens: Chris review – the triumph of a slick character

In her new guise as the lustful Chris, Héloïse Letissier harnesses 80s funk to grapple with gender and identity on her ambitious second album

Many of the best things in life are slippery. Sex is a viscous business, as is sweating it out on the dancefloor. Then there’s the fluidity of all of our individual sexualities. We juggle a diesel rainbow of personas and messy feelings: lust, depression, ambition, wilfulness, to pick just four explored on this long-awaited second album by Christine and the Queens.

“I’m a man now,” declared Héloïse Letissier on iT, a track on her extraordinary debut album, Chaleur Humaine (2016), which sold more than 1m copies and introduced a thrilling new voice in pop. She sang in French and English and a peculiar, inflected hybrid of the two that served the rhythms of her songs more than strict sense. Madonna, one of Letissier’s idols, ended up copying her staging.

Fast-forward to 2018 and the really rude words are now in Spanish (follarse). And “we are all losing to somebody… we are all losers to somebody” – or so Letissier observes on Feel So Good, a track that apes Michael Jackson in the most successful way. This is an MJ reborn in the body of a 30-year-old Frenchwoman hell-bent on kicking the notion of womanhood around until it’s puree. Letissier has written an album all about these clotted fluid dynamics, set to the squelch of 80s funk; the only thing missing from Chris, her second album, is the grease of street food eaten at unlikely hours of the day after some funky bodily exertion.

To still refer to the French pop creative as “Héloïse Letissier” seems a little futile when there are such pressing updates. Apparently only her parents still call her that now. To recap: Letissier became Christine of Christine and the Queens when, a heartbroken theatre school dropout, she moved to London in search of a reason to keep going and was given succour by drag queens: the backstory of Chaleur Humaine.

For album number two, Letissier has pared back that outré persona – if not quite to the bone, then to the muscle. Honed from dancing Chaleur Humaine around the world on tour, Letissier is now “Chrisssss” – as Girlfriend, the album’s excellent lead single, reintroduced her: a more short-cropped, more buff, pansexual horndog who wants to have all the fun the boys are having, while emoting about it in a way that recalls, at different times, any number of intense French chanteuses, Janet Jackson or Grimes. Doesn’t Matter, one of the finest songs on this ambitious pop album, suggests that “Chris” actually has a fair amount in common with Canadian pop radical Grimes, another cooing female auteur coming at the mainstream from somewhere militantly autonomous. Here, as with Grimes, percussion is used as a weapon; none of the lyrics are clichéd top 40 pap. Unlike Grimes, however, Letissier has a bold, synthetic funk payload to commend her, and her lyrics are more obviously personal. She sings about “the suicidal feelings that are still in my head” and – very French, this – “if after the void there is somewhere else to fall”.

And that’s just one song. As it winds its way through out-and-out pop tracks – 5 Dollars, the most straightforward tune here – and pretty R&B balladry – Make Some Sense – Chris even gives way to yet another identity. What’s-her-face is the title of a more rearward-facing, enigmatic cut. “I’m forever ‘what’s-her-face’,” intones Letissier, processing some long-ago playground trauma she only hints at impressionistically. “It was hard to remember, so my name became a slur.”

Watch the video for La Marcheuse by Christine and the Queens.

Chris was written and produced by Letissier, still a feat of enormous will, given how even successful female singers are pressured to mould themselves to the hit-making nous of producers (overwhelmingly male). She had sessions with metrosexuals such as Damon Albarn and Mark Ronson, but Chris is overwhelmingly Letissier’s own work (drum programming, bass, piano, synths, staging) with Dâm-Funk guesting on a couple of tracks – the amazing Girlfriend and Damn (What Must a Woman Do) – and a smattering of musicians fleshing out the sessions. The sole obvious “biz” influence is Cole M Greif-Neill (Beck, Snoop Dogg, Julia Holter), who co-produces.

What results is a highly individual portrait of one singer’s quest to process her newfound confidence: sleep with the people she fancies (“a butch babe in LA” or “a young man fresh asleep/ The end of our friendship”), to stand her ground and demand, not ask, for more.

It’s not without fault. There are tracks so enigmatic you lose the plot. The Stranger features some busy harpsichords, but it’s anybody’s guess what’s on Letissier’s mind: the lyrics feature broncos, Maseratis and water, in a code so opaque it has the air of having just been run through Google translate and stripped of all the nuances of the original French.

You fear the worst of a song called Goya Soda, but it’s an earworm of a tune, where Letissier mourns a relationship that never was: a person so elusive that to love him, she sings, was “to scare a mist”. An elegant piano coda fixes it in your mind.

She remains a magnificent singer, borrowing from her idols, but always resolutely her Franglish self. Damn (What Must a Woman Do) bends language into juicy phonetics, just more funky sound; there are whispered interjections and those Spanish ejaculations. In the biography that journalists receive with the album, Letissier is clear about her obfuscations. “I’m not going to be exactly the queer you want me to be,” she says. “I believe in the question mark more than the answer.” Ultimately, Chris slips and slides, dodging definition.


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