I first heard Christine and the Queens on an episode of ‘Girls’. Just one more reason to be thankful for the existence of that show. The song was ‘iT’ and it introduced me to the work of Héloïse Letissier, a French singer, songwriter, and producer whose star is rapidly rising.
During a visit to London in 2010 Letissier was inspired by the local drag artist musicians, and she persuaded some of them to help form her backing band “The Queens”. Following a few EPs, starting with the self-released Misericorde in 2011 through to Nuit 17 à 52 in 2013, the debut album Chaleur Humaine was released in the UK earlier this year. I’m currently obsessed with the album and it is without doubt one of my favourite records of the last few years. Expect to see it in most best-of lists and end of 2016 round-ups when this strange, unsettling year is over.
Christine and the Queens have been getting a lot of love on the live circuit this summer and it is thoroughly deserved. Their performance at Glastonbury was one of the highlights of the whole festival, and I imagine Letissier made a lot of new fans during the fantastic set. Already an established star in France it is surely only a matter of time before she is similarly feted in the rest of Europe and the wider world.
Lettisier has described her sound as “freak-pop”, and her pop sensibilities weave through the entire album. Carefully constructed tracks which build, and burn, and frequently leave the listener (at least this one) floored. A prime example being the current single ‘Tilted’ and the excellent ‘Half Ladies’. Every song on this album is better than most other songs released this year. From the stilted beats, and yearning strings of ‘Paradis Perdus’, with its achingly beautiful refrain “heartless, how could you be so heartless?” to the piano-laden Abbaesque pop epic-ness of ‘Safe and Holy’, each track gets under your skin.
There are a couple of collaborations on Chaleur Humaine, ‘No Harm is Done’, featuring American hip-hop producer and singer Tunji Ige, and ‘Jonathan’, featuring Perfume Genius. Tunji Ige brings a different element to Letissier’s music and it fits in well with the overall feel of the record. The Perfume Genius cameo is a bit of a let-down for me, and the only weak(ish) point of the album. The song itself isn’t bad, but the collaboration isn’t as effective, possibly because the artists are too similar, so nothing new is introduced by the featured artist.
There is a confidence and defiance in Letissier’s lyrics. She has previously identified herself as pansexual and while it is not something that she makes a big deal of, she makes it clear that she doesn’t really care what other people think, as evidenced by the lyrics of ‘Half Ladies’, in particular the stunning line “Every insult I hear back, darkens into a beauty mark”. This song is also one of the clearest manifestations of her continuing support for the transgender community, and the rights of transgender people.
Letissier’s background in theatre and performing arts is evident on Chaleur Humaine. Each song is like the fully formed musical interpretation of a play, the storytelling shining through in the lyrics and the delivery. The final track on the album, the haunting ‘Here’, is a prime example of this. The mixture of French and English lyrics adding to the mysterious events being relayed in the song. Lines such as “And my curious face is born/Debris of the great fire” sound even better in the original French “Et mon curieux visage est né/Des débris du grand incendie”.
If you haven’t guessed by now I’m a huge fan of this album. I love it so much I almost feel a sense of bereavement when I’m not listening to it. The melodies, beats, and words of Chaleur Humaine have been inhabiting my conscious and unconscious brain since I first listened to it. I’m sure it will do the same to you if you let it in.
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