Queen becomes king


Héloïse Letissier would like you to know that she’s a man now. That’s what she proclaims in “iT”, the opening song from the album “Christine and the Queens” – her first official U.S. release, and also the name of what she calls her “project” – a grand artistic endeavor encompassing song, dance and video art.

Born in Nantes, France in 1988, Letissier studied theater in Lyon and Paris. By late 2010, she was in London developing her music career. There she met a group of drag queens who had a profound influence on her music—they are the titular “queens” that serve as muses of her art. From this encounter, Letissier conceived her stage persona, Christine.

She released four EPs before her debut album, “Chaleur humaine” (Human Warmth), in 2013, which has gone on to sell more than half a million copies. She won Best Female Artist and Best Music Video at the 2014 Victoires de la musique, France’s prestigious music awards.

“Christine and the Queens” repackages “Chaleur humaine” for an American audience. This distinction notwithstanding, the album preserves every last bit of eccentricity: The music straddles genders – with Christine wearing suits and Héloïse identifying as pansexual – as well as languages – with lyrics sung alternately in French and English.

The songs harbor echoes of the bygone nightclubs and music halls of 1970s and 1980s New York; of society’s rejects coming together to celebrate their identities and to find solidarity on a dance floor. Letissier’s aesthetic is indebted to that era’s underground gay scene, encapsulated in Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary, “Paris Is Burning.”

A flurry of clarion piano keys welcomes us into the opening track, “iT.” The first words we hear from Christine are nearly unintelligible at first listen: “With it, I become the death Dickinson feared.” We also get a glimpse into her artistic evolution: “I’ll rule over all my dead impersonations.” But what is it? She tells us, with unbridled triumph, in the chorus: “Because I won, I’m a man now / Because I’ve got it, I’m a man now / And I won’t let you steal it / I bought it for myself.” At that first “got it,” there’s a short, rough slippage in her voice from physical and emotional exertion. “iT” ends with a shift to third-person: “And there’s nothing we can do / To make her change her mind / She’s a man now.”

Letissier’s group’s lyrics sound like modernist poetry by virtue of not only their convention-breaking strangeness, but also of their imagery. In “Saint Claude,” one of the album’s more melancholic tracks, she sings, in French, “The lion gives a half-smile / At my immense solitudes / Your face will never be whole / Since you’re looking outside / I take away a devoured portrait / Pain destiny end to end.” The haunting album closer, “Here,” includes the lines, “Here is where everything happened / My fight has reduced me to geometry” and “Memory is an animal.” She also plays with planetary imagery in the buoyant “Science Fiction.”

Letissier’s English might prove an obstacle to first-time listeners. Songs like “Night52” and “Tilted” were translated almost entirely from their original French. However, the new lyrics conform to the same musical structure. At times, her pronunciation is warped by the surrounding music. It might take several listens to grasp what she is saying, but some meaning remains stuck in the frankly bizarre realm of her imagination. Her raw emotion bleeds through, and she invests all her body and soul into the album.

“Paradis Perdus,” backed by a fluid combination of drums, piano and mechanical beeps, is a welcome interlude for American ears. It’s a piecemeal cover of Kanye West’s “Heartless,” interspersed with refrains of the French singer Christophe’s song, “Les Paradis perdus” (Paradises Lost). “No Harm Is Done,” a full-on foray into hip-hop, features 19-year-old, Philadelphia-based rapper Tunji Ige.

A third American credit goes to “Jonathan,” which features Seattle-based indie artist Mike Hadreas, who goes by the stage name Perfume Genius. “Jonathan” is a mournful song, addressed to a lover with destructive inhibitions. Hadreas’ piercing tenor contributes enormously to the song’s impact. A subtle testament to closeted living, Letissier repeats throughout the song “I believed you were above the laws” in French and “Can you walk with me in the daylight?” in English.

“Half Ladies,” “Narcissus Is Back” and “Safe and Holy” offer jolts of pop hooks that make you want to dance: the first with strains of saxophone and electric guitar, the second with an onslaught of resounding bass, and the third with surges of synth backed by feverish drums and electric guitar riffs. “Half Ladies” also boasts some memorable lines: “Cuz just when you thought I was still a little girl / I’m one of the guys” and “Every insult I hear back darkens into a beauty mark.”

Alas, any night of dancing, no matter how cathartic and transformative, must end. “Don’t let anything be lost,” Letissier murmurs in “Here.” From gaining masculinity at the beginning of the album to this final fear of loss, it’s an ambiguous ending. After getting to know Christine, she’s holding on to her mystery. We are ushered out on the wings of swift violin strokes, suggestive of flight.

With her stateside break, Christine and the Queens appears to have taken off. Let her mount her throne.

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