It’s comforting that Héloïse Letissier (known as Christine and the Queens) understands how to balance politics and pop music. There’s an intellectualization involved when listening to this French singer’s material that’s able to pull one to the meaning of the words and loosen one to dance to such sonic abstractness. That is what makes Christine and the Queens so endearing: she doesn’t need a complex rhythm section as long as she can flexibly maneuver along a beat. If you give her four notes, Letissier would surely find a way to make them hers. Chris, her sophomore record, demonstrates that exquisitely.
This rhythmic ability allows her tracks to be pieces akin to interpretive dance numbers, the kind you might find that accompanies an art exhibit. The topic would be the deconstruction of modernity, and the pieces would explore identity, vulnerability, and showing how common sense is not so common. There are tracks that allow Letissier to shine and face the world with her safeguards down. Verging toward political domains like sexuality and gender, her songwriting makes for a cerebral/emotional dance, one where listeners easily switch from thinking to moving. It’s how subtly this switch can be activated that’s impressive.
“5 Dollars” is a perfect example of being able to flip the switch without stopping the rhythmic pace of the singer and her audience. This song, about the necessity of sex workers, is a headstrong plunge into the acceptance of identity. It pushes listeners to experience that acceptance in their own way. We slowly realize that in our Letissier-imposed trance, we have been jamming along to a song with a simple pop melody. “Girlfriend” is Letissier’s opportunity to allow a more drunken approach to positing her words along an ’80s dancefloor beat. This is a Michael Jackson-inspired rhythm that the singer would be proud of.
The tracks that act more as abstract performance pieces have their merit in that they strip Letissier down to a genuine part of her. The listener explores that part alongside a silky voice and partying drums. “The Walker” has a vulnerable tone with a beat that can push a rainy day forward. “Damn (What Must a Woman Do)” concentrates on a zero-gravity feeling that brings to mind an interpretive dance. This intellectualization works best when it’s restrained, hinting at its meeting rather than shouting it.
“Goya! Soda!”, carried along by an ’80s dance beat, is the exception in that it affronts with a lot of intellect, yet its strangeness brings listeners into their own interpretive dances. It’s meaning is a tale inspired by the Francisco Goya painting Saturn Devouring His Son, and it’s the outlier that distinguishes it from the otherwise awkwardly worded politics of “Feel So Good” and “The Stranger”.
Indeed, the best songs on Chris are the outliers, the ones that are either fully intellectually-engaging or completely poppy. The songs in the middle, that plainly try to balance between the two, only underwhelm because of how common they feel. Florence and the Machine would create the same material and so, too, would other pop acts with a hint of experimentation. That said, Chris is moving: either its beat will grab you or its lyrics will — or both. And when it does, you’ll lose all your social safeguards, and dance.