Sunday, September 23, 2018

Chris | Christine and the Queens

In the overture of her debut album, French singer, songwriter, and producer Héloïse Letissier declares, “I’ve got it. I’m a man now.” Doing business as Christine and the Queens, she tells the tale of growing a penis and enjoying the societal benefits associated with being a man on "iT." She first told that story four years ago. It seemed fitting at the time for an openly pansexual artist who enjoyed toying with gender dynamics and fluidity, but it's even more appropriate in hindsight: Today, meet Chris.

Chris, the sophomore effort titled after a nickname that Letissier deems more intimate than her full stage name, sees the realization of her deepest desires. Described as the gender-bent antithesis to an archetypal 'macho man,' lead single "Girlfriend" crawls its way to the bedroom with vintage keys and a downright sexy guitar line: "Don't feel like a girlfriend, but lover? Damn, I'd be your lover," she sings over the G-funk track. Seductive and infectious, it shatters the mindset of her previous record and forges the mold for the newest one.

Christine and the Queens, the English-dubbed repackage of her debut record, is high-gloss and glorious, but sonically and thematically, it can come off as a bit cold, as well; its GarageBand beats are harsh and rigid, and its lyrics commentate on society, gender, and mortality from a distance. In comparison, Chris is messier and less regimented, but it boils from its underbelly with malleable human spirit and newfound sexual energy. It’s as if her debut is the matchbox and this record is the match, struck on its predecessor for inspiration and freshly caught aflame.

Her most triumphant moment comes on "Damn (What Must a Woman Do)," a horny plea set to a spluttering trance beat, when she cries out the track's title at its midpoint. She breaks character and shatters into primal desperation – primal, of course, never would have existed in her previous record's vocabulary. But Chris is the meeting place for her primal urges and intellectual musings to mingle. Both kinky and tender, "5 Dollars" is scaled-back in comparison to "Damn" or "Girlfriend," emphasizing her commentary on the power dynamics between an escort and her customer.

"5 Dollars" and "Goya Soda," a nonsensical cathedral song inspired by this nightmarish Francisco Goya painting, best represent her ornate (and sometimes incoherent) way of concocting and articulating her unorthodox narratives, but the record's melodies are sticky and beautifully nuanced as she continues to finesse her English dialogue. And when Chris' polished instrumentation counters her melody with a punch, it results in a career-redefining moment like "Doesn't Matter." The track's inner loneliness is plastered over with gurgling bass surges and sharp drum kicks, making for the album's most infectious and troubled track.

With the beats pulled back, we can find Chris pacing by herself, caught in her own head. "The Walker" perfectly soundtracks an evening walk, with nothing but a drumbeat and the glimmer of a vintage synthesizer to distract from her poetic escape from an abusive relationship: "This is how I chose to talk, with some violent hits, violent blossoms akin," she sings. She reflects on longer-lasting bruises from the childhood playground on "What's-Her-Face." A haunting melody sprawls across her somber soundscape as she sings, "It was hard to remember, so my name became a slur. I'm forever what's-her-face."

In many respects, it seems Chris still feels like an outcast today, just as she did years ago. And who could blame her? With her avant-garde vision and a complex persona to deliver it, it's hard to remember that she is, at her core, one of us – and one of them. Draping overstretched, hyper-metaphoric storyboards over iron-clad sonic framework, she stands on the front lines of pop music's master class without losing touch with humanity. Much more than a checked box for minority representation, Chris is an imperfectly human display of tragedy and fantasy – and just about everything in between.

Chris is available now under Because Music.

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