Christine and the Queens Achieve Theatrical Pop Perfection on ‘La Vita Nuova’
Singer-songwriter Héloïse Letissier has referred to the music she records under the moniker Christine and the Queens as “freakpop.” It makes perfect sense, as she writes consistently catchy tunes with arty angles and a quirky edge. On 2018’s groundbreaking “Chris,” she adopted an eponymous masculine alter ego, and played with notions of gender, to wide critical acclaim. For her latest EP, “La Vita Nuova,” translated from Italian to “The New Life,” she returns to her standard character, and the lyrics naturally shift focus to the personal. The release comes in tandem with a short film of the same name, featuring Letissier performing at the Palais Garnier in Paris. A set of irresistible tunes about love, heartbreak, and the vast space in between, the new record runs without a dull moment, and showcases Letissier in all her wonder.
“People, I’ve Been Sad” is a powerful opener, launching immediately into an infectious melody. The way Letissier rounds off her vowel sounds and pops her consonants, switching from English to French midway, over a barebones backbeat of static burst snares and droning synth bass makes for a strikingly punchy, sleek sound. The chorus is massive, with Letissier splitting up her words and throwing out angular bellows in an idiosyncratic arrangement that somehow couldn’t flow off her tongue as an example of purer pop. She sings, “If you / Disappear, then I’m / Disappearing too,” with the words “you” and “I” forming the main thrust, setting the tone for an album that devotes all its lyrics to relationship struggles.
“Je disparais dans tes bras” picks up the pace with another minimal beat, bars punctuated by jokey whispers and calls of “Hey” over eerie synth sounds, making for an original cut of dancey gothic pop. The song is in French, but the EP also includes a bonus track which translates it to the English, “I Disappear In Your Arms.” The lyrics here are clearly intended to be nothing more than a camp love song, with lines like, “You say you love me / And now I doubt it / ‘Cause you’re after something you can’t have.” What does stand out in the lyrics, however, is how perfect they fit the tune in both French and English, conforming to the same syllable counts, and ringing catchy without ever sounding awkward or forced.
Letissier shifts gears on “Mountains (we met),” a sprawling, melodramatic ballad of sorts that trudges along to a beat that echoes Joy Division. In the chorus, she repeats, “Mountains / Since we met,” harmonizing with herself as though to audibly capture the meeting, and leaving it open to interpretation whether the mountains represent a momentous feat accomplished or a colossal obstacle separating two people. “Nada” returns to the usual sonic machinery and cool, demure shtick, with bits of processed piano added to the mix. Letissier announces the end of a relationship with a frivolity somewhere between a shrugging pose and a bold march forward. She sings, “Nada, never back again / Oh, pasa, pasa, pasa,” repeating the words in feisty, rapid snippets that make for a particularly quirky chorus.
The title track is unlike any other on the record, busier and more colorful, employing the ‘80s stylings already present everywhere, but this time painting the town red, with all the excesses of the decade. A rapid breakbeat and clipped vocal samples give way to flamboyant, histrionic vocals. Named after the great Dante Alighieri’s “Vita Nuova,” or “New life,” in which he introduces his famous lover Beatrice, the song offers a contemporary reimagination of a scene from the book. Caroline Polachek joins Letissier, and sings in Italian. By the time of the chorus, the two are belting away, sounding like they’re having a bit too much fun, having reduced Dante’s verse to “Oh, all the heartbreakers / I never take their answer for sure.” Some themes are truly timeless. A riot of tuned percussion near the end seals the deal, a highlight in its exhilarating silliness.
Every song on “La Vita Nuova” is a banger, condensing a surfeit of personality, demanding attention immediately, and calling for repeated listens. As with any release from Letissier, the mix of English and French adds a special cosmopolitan dimension, expressed in a voice ideally equipped to shuttle back and forth. Letissier presents a unique blend of dark and light aesthetics, with edge and theatrics measured by glossy pop polish and lighthearted cool. The lyrics, similarly, explore somber subject matter with an amount of levity. Each tune bears Christine and the Queens’ trademark stamp, while standing apart from all the others.
“La Vita Nuova” is available Feb. 28 on Apple Music.