Chaleur Humaine, the debut album by Héloïse Letissier’s Christine and the Queens, was an improbable breakout. Mainstream straddles the experimental on the regular in France’s thriving pop scene, but seldom gets outside traction—let alone enough to become the U.K.’s biggest-selling debut album of 2016. But on music alone, it’s easy to hear the crossover appeal. Letissier’s soft-rock ’80s sound has been revived continually, to zeitgeist sighs, by the likes of Haim on Days Are Gone or Dev Hynes’s Blood Orange. The haze of keyboard presets, the windshield-fog backing vocals, the Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis rhythmic stabs—all are a specific slice of nostalgia. Single “Girlfriend” recruits Dâm-Funk for hyper-targeted triangulating: “Rock With You” (the synths), “Holiday” (the bass), a big nod to Sophie B. Hawkins’ “Damn” (the chorus) and, anchoring it to this decade, Frank Ocean’s “Novacane” (the melody and cadence on the verses are near-identical).
But Chris has something the 80,000 ’80s imitators don’t: a killer persona, in the titular Chris. Like “Christine” on Chaleur Humaine, she’s both character and talisman, a songwriting conceit and someone to inhabit to get through the day. She commands space, an album’s worth; unlike on Chaleur Humaine, the only featured artist on Chris is Dâm-Funk. She’s master of ceremonies on lead track, “Comme si,” Letissier’s version of Prince’s intro to “Let’s Go Crazy”: “Let’s, for the whole song, just pretend that all along I’ve been there, infectious.” Infectious she is, and robust; the fluting soprano from Chaleur Humaine is heard on occasion, as on “What’s-her-face” and “Goya Soda,” but more often there’s a rich, loud belt, the kind from her early, Paris is Burning-inspired “power song” “The Loving Cup.” As “Comme si” continues: “There’s a pride in my singing, the thickness of a new skin.”
Crucially, Chris exudes masculine energy, but not the brash, slablike masculinity that’s first association; like the two obvious influences on Chris, Prince and Michael, it’s something deliberate, choreographed—the videos to Chris are as essential as the songs—and even fussier. “When you think of extremely macho men, it’s so feminine,” Letissier told GQ, accompanying the interview with a faux pec-squeeze. “You see them exposed with chest oil and muscles … I’m like, ‘Dude! You’re such a girl.’” Indeed, Letissier chisels the English language like muscles. Like countrymate Camille, she sings like pointillist painting, almost dripping out notes: lots of staccato, lots of skittering and gliding across melodic lines in non-obvious ways, lots of unexpected emphasis. Her lyrics, too, are studied and precise—at one point she literally sings “precise”—and verbose. Some of this formality is probably due to translating from French to English (the “as one should” in the chorus to “Feel So Good” sounds more colloquial in French). But it’s also a way of claiming space: a woman taking the space of a pop song, where it’s often said that lyrics don’t matter, and filling it with the many things she has to say.
And Letissier has a lot to say. A lot of Chris—and a lot of the coverage around it, to be fair—can seem reductive on first glance. But Letissier is one of the most nuanced songwriters working, and an inventive arranger. “Feel So Good,” a song about breaking paradigms, is punctuated by the literal sound of breaking glass, but also early-’00s R&B percussion scritches and Knifey burbles. The chorus to “Girlfriend” is bumper-sticker blunt because pop choruses are blunt, and the verses are all sweaty, raunchy detail.
“Goya Soda” is a vignette inspired by Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, a painting Letissier saw as a “crude, striking metaphor about desire.” Compared to other art of Cronus, Goya’s is palpably wild, even sexualized; the eyes are wide, the hair frazzled, the titular son colored like a cartoon steak. Dead center on the canvas there’s a large pair of buttocks (and originally, some art historians think, an erect penis). The conceit, reminiscent of Roisin Murphy’s “Exploitation” (“who’s exploiting who”), is familiar. But it’s equally about the obvious glee at the sounds of “Goya! Soda!” (Letissier told Pitchfork the title came first), plus the wistfulness of Chris’s singing.
“What’s-her-face” and “The Walker” are moments of vulnerability, the former a flashback to childhood bullying interrupting adult activities, the latter Chris playing flâneur amid the haters. And while “Damn (what must a woman do)” is both the spikiest bit of electro-funk and the lewdest song on the album, it’s hardly a celebration. Built around a three-note synth twitch and a lot of sexual frustration, it’s a song about getting back on the horse when the horse sucks. Chris’s vocal glosses over the specifics of this partner or that—“a butch babe in L.A.,” “this young man fresh asleep” scared off by mild kink—shrugging through the syllables. (The same is true of the French version “Follarse”; any added emphasis is just a coincidence of which syllables fall where.) But emphasis there is: backing-vocal yelps, lusty swells on the word “let,” melodramatic quavers on “mourn.” It’s all contradictions—a song about not getting, sung by getting embodied—a three-dimensional portrait on an album made of them.