Christine and the Queens Reaches for the Stars
The latest album from Héloïse Letissier, a.k.a Christine and the Queens just dropped. Called Redcar les adorable etoiles (prologue), which translates to Redcar, the adorable star (prolog), it is one of the best albums of the year. A mix of europop dance music, dream pop, 80s new wave, David Bowie, and even progressive rock, Christine and the Queens has created a marvelous album. What could have been a hot mess of competing styles, instead, becomes a cohesive blend of complementary elements like a fine wine or great coffee roast. The arrangements – both at an album level, such as the order of the songs, and within songs – are exceptional. The percussion and drums are a driving force and expertly managed and executed. Overall, the production is vastly superior to much of what has passed for hit records this past year.
Redcar les adorable etoiles (prologue), is built around a conceit. Here, Letissier takes on an alter ego of her usual alter ego (Christine), called Redcar. Similar to Bowie’s Thin White Duke, it is a sophisticated and mysterious persona. This idea of Redcar, as in the case of Bowie’s previous persona Ziggy Stardust or Rael from Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, provides a center of gravity that pulls together disparate elements into a unified whole. A concept like this can often backfire, becoming cartoonish, precious, or overbearing compared to the music. Letissier avoids these pitfalls and Redcar only acts as a guiding force. Because of this character, the album often plays like a soundtrack, allowing for otherwise different styles to make sense as vignettes of the figure Redcar.
Drama is a central element of Redcar les adorable etoiles (prologue). It is not dramatic as in over-the-top. Better words might be cinematic or theatrical. In fact, the album plays out like a soundtrack for a movie we’ve yet to see. Again, the parallels with Ziggy Stardust come to mind. The album begins with the slow uneven drum beat of “Ma bien aimée bye bye”. Letissier adds haunting, almost melancholy vocals to the mix, creating an ethereal and striking effect. It is a technique seen often in dream pop but with progressive overtones. At the end of the song, you feel that you’ve just heard the unrecorded follow up to Jethro Tull’s “Cold Wind from Vahalla” or Bowie’s “Five Years”.
Other songs also seem like they are intended for a soundtrack or musical. “La chanson du chevalier”, or the Knight’s Song, is more dream pop though mixed with early Sinead O’Connor. The backup singers act as a choir and add texture to the main vocal line. The strong persistent drumbeat creates that sense of some horseman riding across the plains in an unnamed adventure. Solo synths at the end round this out and place the movie, though not the action, in the 80s. I was immediately reminded of Clannad’s soundtrack for the BBC’s series, Robin Hood. Later on, we hear another cinematic song, ”La clairefontaine”. This song has a retro movie sound, perhaps from a late 80s romantic drama. Gated drums provide an 80s sound along with a slight reverb in the vocals. The infectious groove, though, will make for some sexy modern-day dancing.
We are often reminded that this is music meant to be danced to. The synths and drums of “Les étoiles” sound like 80s dance music. The vocals, however, are straight out of Dead Can Dance meets Aimee Mann. Mysterious and ethereal with slight echoes, it’s more a dance for lovers than for the club. “My birdman” with it’s slower than EDM but faster than trip hop beat, and jazzy, bluesy soulful lyrics is similarly meant to provide for that sensual mating dance when you are not yet ready to slow dance. Think Sade for modern audiences. “Looking for love” is the only song that seems intended for a modern dance club. Its driving beat, like mid-80s club music, fits well within retro and modern club music sensibilities. It is also more pop than the rest of the album. This is the song that appears to be intentionally a club/radio/streaming friendly cut. The mixing of English and French together drives home the impression that this is “the international dance hit” from the album. Thankfully, it still maintains the dramatic and cinematic quality of the rest of the album and doesn’t seem out of place.
Dramatic, theatrical, retro, and yet modern. Redcar les adorable etoiles (prologue), is the best album of the holiday season and perhaps of the year. I can only imagine how good the stage show for this will be. If you are lucky enough to have Christine and the Queens come to a stage near you, this will be the show you don’t want to miss. The same is true for the album but that’s easier to find. Go. Listen. Now!