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.”