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Christine and the Queens - Chris Music Album Reviews

The kinetic French singer Hélöise Letissier lets us into the whole of her life, creating an electric blend of unforgettable imagery, emotional depth, and lurid pop-funk.

Most of us have a hard time seeing people for who they really are. We reduce even those we love down to two-dimensional sketches so they fit into our lives neatly and without concern. Christine and the Queens’ new album Chris is remarkable for a few reasons, but this is the one that’s sticking with me: It’s impossible to deny the complexity of the person at its center. She uses masculinity like a sledgehammer to enrich her womanhood; she’s a crude, libidinous woman, but her heart is still tender; she has the courage and creativity to make a life for herself outside of the status quo, but she still feels the pain that comes with choosing a path other people don’t understand. Chris is a portrait of an instantly memorable character making utterly gleaming pop music.

Chris didn’t just spring into being fully-formed. After touring in support of her 2014 debut Chaleur Humaine and its 2015 re-release in English, the French artist Hélöise Letissier felt herself changing. The rigors of dancing and performing every night made her body tougher and more athletic; she reached new levels of wealth and confidence that had until recently seemed hard to imagine. And while she was experiencing these transformations, her newfound fame granted her access to the inner sanctums of culture and celebrity. She considered the boundaries that male stars were permitted to cross while their female counterparts were held back. “They can be sexual, flawed, and incredibly charismatic,” Letissier told GQ. “Complexity and intricacy is reserved to men. Women must make it unthreatening, simplified. I wish I could be Nick Cave or Mick Jagger.” Unlocking the persona of Chris—a “horny, hungry and ambitious” woman, as Letissier told The New York Times—liberated her to step over those boundaries and more fully embrace the whole of her being. Instead of becoming Cave or Jagger, she created a seductive, slutty hero of her own.

The resulting album is an electric blend of unforgettable imagery, emotional depth, and lurid, sizzling pop-funk. Dewy lead single “girlfriend” lays down the terms of engagement: Chris may not feel like your girlfriend, but she could get used to being called your lover. She’ll leave for an early workout and push you back into bed just when you’re ready to wake up: “Came back steaming in sweats in the morning,” she pants. “I muscled in, for I wanted to hold him.” (I heard it and thought about Justin Theroux jogging through the first episode of “The Leftovers” in one of this decade’s most infamous pairs of sweatpants.) “Damn (what must a woman do)” explores the “shame and isolation” women are made to feel about their lust; Chris’ cool, pointed whisper suggests Erotica-era Madonna working over production from Junior Boys. Shimmering opener “comme si” equates the act of listening with a carnal pact. The confidence Letissier draws from tapping into Chris is radiant: “There’s a pride in my singing/The thickness of a new skin/I am done with belonging.”

While Chris’ vigor is intoxicating, Letissier hardly conceals the trauma and hurt women like Chris are made to endure before achieving this degree of self-possession. Her approach to conveying emotion through her singing is subtle and refined: When she opts for restraint, it says as much as when she chooses to explode. On the kinetic “doesn’t matter,” verses about overcoming suicidal thoughts and being tempted by nihilism are delivered in a controlled, distant near-monotone. She only leaps into the higher end of her range once she pulls herself back from the brink, encouraging the listener to move forward as if they “stole a shard of sunlight.”

You can hear a moment of dark clarity break through the heat of a sexual transaction on “5 dollars”: “Some of us just had to fight/For even being looked at right.” The heartbreaking “what’s-her-face” is a reflection on years spent bullied and tormented, leaving wounds that are always threatening to be reopened. Here and on spare late-album highlight “make some sense”—an anguished look back at a childhood crush who morphs into an infamous, violent attacker— her voice is softer and more pliable, but it’s still anchored by a fundamental strength. It’s the sound of bending but never breaking.

The song that best captures the complexities of Chris is “the walker,” which chronicles the kind of indefinite stroll you take when your blood is thundering through your veins and you need to clear your head. Chris sets out with no fixed route, and her rage is simmering just beneath the surface. She sends birds flying out of her way with concerted stomps; when she passes by other people, they “politely smile to make sure I won’t come any closer.” Her pain has no definite source or target. When enough time passes, she starts to come to terms with the feelings coursing through her body. “It hurts, I feel everything/As my sense of self’s wearing thin,” she sings, her voice feeble. Just when she’s threatening to collapse, you can hear her regaining her vitality with every new word: “Such pains can be a delight/Far from when I could drown in my shame!” Isn’t that what it means to be alive? Isn’t it better to embrace the slings and arrows launched your way than to curl yourself into a ball and settle for something less than your purest possible truth? Chris answers those questions with a resounding yes.

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