Because Music 6508400
Of all the recordings I’ve reviewed over the last few years, I’ve returned to the 2018 Christine and the Queens album Chris most often. Christine and the Queens is Héloïse Adelaïde Letissier, a French singer-songwriter, dancer, and producer. The songs on Chris are well written, intelligently arranged, and powerfully performed. I probably should have given it at least a four-star rating, and I’m not alone in holding it in high regard. The Guardian named it album of the year for 2018 and Time picked “Girlfriend,” a single from Chris, as the year’s best single.
Chris is also sonically stunning, the kind of disc that reps at audio shows should play to demo their gear to a younger generation of audiophiles. The low-frequency energy of the album is remarkable, the imaging of instruments and voices is palpably three-dimensional, and there are layers of sonic detail that travel across the speakers and into your listening room.
La Vita Nuova is the latest Christine and the Queens release, a six-song EP that includes the bonus track “I Disappear in Your Arms,” an English-language version of the second song, “Je disparais dans tes bras.” The EP’s title is Italian for “the new life,” and its themes of romantic loss and the complexity of relationships give it a calmer and more introspective tone than Chris or its predecessor, 2014’s Chaleur Humaine.
The first single from the disc, “People, I’ve Been Sad,” begins with the sound of Letissier’s voice, altered to sound like a woodwind instrument, while a synthesized bass line and programmed drums establish the song’s rhythmic foundation. She sings about loneliness and the complex, conflicting feelings flowing out of depression and heartbreak. The song develops into a multitracked call-and-response, gaining in complexity and harmony as it proceeds. Voices cross channels, and layers of sound, nearly all of it composed from variations of Letissier’s vocals, convey the singer’s emotions in a direct, unfiltered manner.
The synths on the medium-tempo “Je disparais dans tes bras” are dark-toned, and work with the voice samples in the track to reinforce the complicated vision of a toxic relationship described in the lyrics. “Mountains (We Met)” slows things down, presenting Letissier with a simple piano and percussion backing. More voices and some keyboard flourishes build the song’s intensity as it moves along. The tempo picks up a little for “Nada,” which uses swirling keyboards, along with crosscutting and processed vocals, to create a rich tapestry of sound.
American singer and producer Caroline Polachek joins Letissier on “La Vita Nuova,” which takes its title and inspiration from Dante Alighieri’s 13th-century text about courtly love. Letissier exchanges verses with Polachek, in English and Italian, on love’s difficulties and occasional frustrations. Percussion dances across the speakers, and voices fill the soundstage at various distances. Synthesizers and a popping synth bass drive the song, but it’s the tones and textures of the voices that give the track its passion.
Letissier has an uncanny ability to humanize instruments that are cold and alienating in other hands. The processed sounds and electronic instruments used to create so much of today’s pop music often make the recordings sound “manufactured.” On the Christine and the Queens recordings, drum programs have the natural rhythmic flow of their acoustic counterparts, and bass synth lines are full and melodically entrancing. Letissier uses the unique textures of electronic instruments to create a landscape that reinforces and strengthens the messages her voices(s) convey.
La Vita Nuova shows the same attention to sonic detail evident in Chaleur Humaine and Chris. Low-register keyboards and bass synths thump hard but retain their attack and edge, and voices are realistic and fully fleshed out. Ash Workman and Letissier co-produced the album, and while I’m tempted to give Chris a slight edge on sonics (Cole M.G.N. was in the co-producer’s chair for that album), I found that La Vita Nuova showed off my speakers nicely.
Most important, La Vita Nuova is further proof that Letissier makes vital and engaging music. Disco, dance music, electronica, and a vast array of other influences course through the three Christine and the Queens discs I’ve mentioned here, but Letissier combines these influences into something new and inspired. With luck, a new, full-length album will come soon.
. . . Joseph Taylor