Transformation is at the heart of the music that Héloïse Letissier has made as Christine and the Queens, so it’s only fitting that her new era started with a strikethrough. It’s there on the cover of her new record, the last 16 letters of her confusingly plural stage name lopped off in favour of a minimal new title, which she’s also seemingly toying with using as a new moniker: Chris. To hear her explain it, it’s not a gesture of “negation,” of rejecting the feminine-sounding suffix that once adorned her nocturnal pop compositions. Instead, she told NPR, it’s another way of owning her inborn in-betweenness. “Chris is [. . .] about living desire as a force of chaos,” she said. “And about revelling in that chaos.”
Freedom from expectation is something Chris has fought for since she first started making and releasing music. She’s a French-born musician who had some formative life experiences in London, and now releases versions of her records in both French and English. Around the time of her first record – released as Chaleur Humaine in France and Christine and the Queens in English-speaking countries – she took to performing in suits, a non-conformist choice that confounded some and resulted in her patiently, repeatedly explaining the very concept of pansexuality to members of the press. (Per that NPR interview, some people even assumed that her disclosure of her sexuality was a marketing tactic.)
Chris, clearly, is content with embracing these contradictions – between languages, styles, and outward presentations – all at once, even at the expense of alienating more regressive critics. Mark the video for “5 dollars,” which finds Chris slowly getting ready, putting on one of those three-piece suits that confused the straights, then adding another layer...literally. Before pulling on a shirt and vest, she throws on a leather harness, as if to show us how limited our understanding is of her inner life. She’ll outwardly say things like, “I don't really believe in binaries” and lament the fact that for "women working with masculine energy [. . .] fluidity is impossible." Open-minded followers will grasp these ideas intuitively, but moments like that hidden sensuality in “5 dollars” hint at something more at play in her work – something that won’t ever be able to be fully spelled out, in her words or anyone else’s. Life’s complicated like that.
Chris, as a record, is most interesting when it attempts to put voice to those hidden parts. The record vibrates with desire, existential pain, and even spite – emotions and themes that inform the whole history of pop music. But here they’re laid strikingly bare, with the record painting Chris’s psyche in both fullness and intimacy, with great detail and incredible warmth. On “Doesn’t matter,” she sings about being at the precipice of an abyss, dealing with “suicidal thoughts,” and questioning the cosmological origins of selfhood.
They’re big questions, ones that Chris has occasionally dealt with in the past, but they bring traumas and crises to the surface, commingling with the brighter bits. Those moments – like “Damn (what must a woman do),” a song in which she gleefully, urgently offers to pay for sex, and which she described as an “aggressively brutal track about horniness” – shine even brighter in the darkness, a testament to the beauty that can come when you try to depict the fullness of existence. There’s beauty in contrasts, which Chris knows well, and she does her best to evoke as many of them as she can throughout the record.
For all their lyrical and thematic heaviness – not to mention the complex, emotive choreography that accompanies some of the videos for these songs – the songs themselves are approachable. I generally favour pop music that reshapes established forms and sounds, but Chris is more quietly radical. She favours breezy sounds from pop’s past, like the billowing G-funk of “Girlfriend” (aided by scene weirdo Dâm-Funk) or the Hughesian new wave of “5 dollars.” Melodies are uncomplicated, instrumentation is glassy and tempered.
Take the record’s attendant controversy as an example. One prominent passage was apparently lifted from a royalty-free loop from GarageBand, some great sin according to big nerds online who made videos criticising Chris’ production chops in a distinctly gendered-feeling way – nevermind the impeccable breeziness of all the instrumentation and arrangements on the record. (Not to mention that even if some software engineer made a hot loop, it took Chris to make it into a hot song.) I read her choices as an inclusive gesture – as if with every discursive lyric about sex and death, she’s beckoning the listener to come be a part of the album, to join in the chorus recounting the messiness of life.
That only makes the messages she’s trying to get across – the untameable nature of desire, the inevitability of our demise – all the more powerful. She pulls you close then screams all these messy, tangled themes in your ear. This is what makes Chris feel so rare: It’s an incredibly pleasant pop record that’s nevertheless uncompromising in its weightiness, which, ultimately feels almost absurdly optimistic. You can be yourself, own your fullness, even the tough parts, and still draw other people in. There are other freaks like you.
Colin Joyce is an editor for Noisey and is on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.