In conversation with James Brubaker and Libby Cudmore about Christine and the Queens’ self-titled album, Paris, identification, and interesting pop music.
Cudmore: I’m listening to “Saint Claude” as the body counts are coming in from Paris, as strikes are launched against ISIS, as names of victims and killers are revealed. It seems fitting although it was unintentional. I can’t help but think about Casablanca, when the Nazis roll in and Laszlo commands the band to start playing “La Marseillaise”.
Brubaker:.On September 10, 2001, I drove from Bowling Green, Ohio to Detroit, Michigan to see Built to Spill play at the Majestic Theater. The band played loud and the guy standing next to me kept throwing his shoe straight up in the air and making metal fingers every time he caught it. When I got home, I walked to the gas station close to my apartment complex for a fresh pack of smokes, the show still buzzing in my head. I remember that walk. It was quiet and warm, but with a crisp breeze. I couldn’t see a star in the sky. And then the next morning… And I still can’t quite listen to Built to Spill without thinking of September 2001 and all that comes with that time. I want to hear Christine and the Queens for their intriguing, sexy, smart and weird songs–but when I listen, for now at least, I can’t not think of the news reports from Paris on that Friday.
Cudmore: French is so beautiful and I know none of it. Check that. I can say “Potato” and “I am a pineapple.” Six years of French class for nothing.
It’s starting to snow here, the kind that doesn’t stick but just flutters around in the dark like glitter, or confetti, or apocalyptic ash. The world feels like it’s falling apart, but underneath it all, in the tiny trill whispers of this little singer all in black, is a strange sort of hope….
Brubaker: As I’m writing this, now, it’s been almost seven years to the day that Kanye West released 808’s and Heartbreaks. It’s strange to hear that album’s “Heartless” pop up as the chorus on Christine and the Queen’s “Paradis Perdus.” Translated, the title means “Paradise Lost,” which almost feels heavy handed. But then, what’s not heavy handed about loss, about the end of a relationship—events for which the phrase heavy handed was invented. But leave it to Christine and the Queens to marry John Milton to Kanye West. Leave it to Christine and the Queens to bend the will of Kanye’s dude-bro-feeling-sorry-for-himself anthem to a more quietly, elegantly romantic treatment of loss.
Cudmore: Songs about the Metro always get me. “Smoke & Mirrors” by the Magnetic Fields is a big one. I lived in NYC for awhile and the subway is second nature there. Missing your stop is one of the most frustrating things in the world—I swear I have PTSD about it—so the idea in “Saint Claude” that love is so powerful that you would skip your subway stop to stay with your beloved, just at his word, is the most beautiful image I can imagine.
Brubaker: “Saint Claude” is probably my favorite song here. I’ve never lived in a place where subway usage was a way of life, but the very idea of being so wrapped up in a person that you’ll stay with them longer despite whatever inconvenience it may cause—there’s something lovely in that, a sort of quiet urgency in the idea of bucking the real for romance, making romance into a new real. It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s an almost political act, in a way.
Brubaker: Believe it or not, I’d never even heard of Christine and the Queens until their November 12, 2015 appearance on The Daily Show. I’m not sure what compelled me to watch their performance that night. Since Jon Stewart left, I’ve stopped watching the interviews, and I rarely stick around to watch music performances unless they are by artists I am already excited about. But for whatever reason, I watched Christine and Queens’ performance, and for whatever reason, I was perplexed by it. The song they performed was “Tilted”—such an odd song, loaded with percolating keyboards and strange lyrics in which the song’s speaker talks about drawing on her face with magic marker, while “Christine” (aka: Héloïse Letissier) danced. Early in the song she moved in a quiet approximation of Michael Jackson if he had been a robot; later in the song, her mechanical-smooth moves gave way to a furious, primal stomping and flailing. When it was all over, I didn’t know what the shit I’d just seen, but I was pretty sure I liked it.
Cudmore: I too first saw her perform on The Daily Show. I was alone in a hotel room in NYC; I’d just gotten back from seeing three comedians at the Upright Citizens Brigade and I wasn’t ready to go to bed. I had thought the trip away would be a sort of quiet reprieve from an endlessly busy life; this year I prepared my first novel for publication, got married, wrote two more book proposals and continued my seemingly endless work as a small-town journalist. But the day was hardly quiet, and now I was alone in my microscopic hotel room, missing my husband, feet aching from stupidly walking around in spike heels to project a complex Cool Girl vibe to my friend Mike, who took me to Barcade and made me laugh and kicked my ass in Daytona USA. My hotel had no bathtub to soak in, which was the final blow in a day’s worth of petty gripes.
(Tomorrow this will seem like a selfish thing to say, to complain about a lack of bathtub while I’m staying for free in a high-rise hotel overlooking Times Square, while others are dead, or playing dead just because they wanted to see a concert or a football match or have dinner.)
But listening to “Tilted,” I think of my friend Jason in Baltimore. Something about her voice reminds me of Candice Night from Blackmore’s Night, a band that has shown up on every mix CD he’s given me since we reconnected, seven years after we lost touch. Got back together. Haunting. Pretty and sweet and faint, but with a core toughness: “I’m in my right place/don’t be a downer.” So what if she wants to color her face wildly? It makes her happy. Women are, from birth, taught to apologize for everything, to couch and to justify everything we do, so for her to say, Back off, this is what I want is a strong and deceptively simple statement.
I always associate songs with people, usually boys. I wonder if I can fit this song onto the next CD I make him, if I can bend and twist the lyrics to fit with us. In subsequent listens on the train the next day, I can’t. It will always speak to me of being alone in a hotel room above New York City, with sore feet and the strange sadness that only comes late at night, above it all.
Brubaker: I do the same thing with songs, try to fit them to people or events in my life. For some reason, with this album, I’m having trouble doing that. Maybe it’s because of that initial association with the Paris attacks, or maybe it’s because of something else. Above, you talk about “Tilted” and its “core toughness,” and go on to point out that “Women are, from birth, taught to apologize for everything, to couch and to justify everything we do, so for her to say, Back off, this is what I want is a strong and deceptively simple statement.” This album has that core toughness, and feels like it is very invested in standing up to the ways that socialization weighs on gender and sexuality. Even on “Night 52,” a song that feels like it could be a traditional, universal breakup song, what begins as a romantic depiction of passion in a failing relationship (“You were turning down your face/I held you tight”) evolves into a defiant kiss-off, when Letissier sings, “I want it open, so cut it open…now I’m lace-like for the rain to come through.” The song’s pull and push, which moves from shared intimacy to a willful expulsion of the relationship through self exposure as everything falls apart, speaks to a passion that I can’t quite wrap my head around. When I hear this song, I hear it as a woman speaking to a man. I don’t know if that’s the intent, or if that even matters but that line, “I want it open, so cut it open” feels wonderfully, powerfully unapologetic. And maybe that’s where the something else comes in and keeps me from adapting these songs to my personal uses. And maybe that something else is straight, white male privilege, or maybe it’s Letissier et al’s profound French-ness, or maybe it’s the “lace-like” intimacy on display, but whatever it is, I end up preferring to approach this album as a tourist–and that’s ok, is even one of the things I like about this album. Letissier’s honest and sincere approach to relationship politics is a thing to be admired, and on songs like “Night 52” and “Jonathan” (in which the song’s speaker describes a relationship that exists in the confines of only a single room) that approach feels so specific and intimate that I begin to feel like a trespasser. And, again, I like that. I like that this album teaches me instead of giving me something to identify with. My record shelves are full of albums I identify with—I have enough of those. I like the way this album makes me feel like an outsider.
That said, I’ll probably put “Saint Claude” on the next mix I make for my girlfriend, though even that, if the rough, online translation can be trusted, speaks more to loneliness and the push/pull of desire, with Letissier singing (allegedly) “Leave me alone” before arriving at the “Here’s my station” part.
Cudmore: This album is terribly Frenchy, but it’s our Pinterest Paris, delicate and fragile and floating on a cloud of Chanel no 5. It’s skinny jeans and impeccable makeup and tasteful heels, it’s deceptively simple and painfully beautiful. I would play this album over a candlelit dinner or if I owned a bisto that served everything on square plates.
But you’re right—I can’t associate this with any one person, hard as I try. It sounds like loneliness for no one in particular. It sounds like indigo skies and neon and the soft hum of traffic somewhere else. And that might be because this album is lovely and fine—it’s not that special. Ultimately, the rest of this album is just background music for those two great songs.
Cudmore: “Jonathan” makes me cringe and I can’t explain why. I blame Perfume Genius. It’s very Magnetic Fields, which normally I would like, but it just doesn’t work.”Half-Ladies” has a funky little sax part in the chorus (although it’s drifting into Natalie Merchant territory in its heavy-handedness), but not enough to lift it out of the white noise. And that’s not to say I don’t like this album. The songs on it that stand out are ones I play over and over, that I’ll probably love for a long time. But while there’s nothing offensive in this album (like, say, 1989, which sounds like a dentist drill) there’s nothing especially stand-out about this album as a whole, aside from two good singles.
I rarely find modern albums I would listen to all the way through anymore. Last night I played Warren Zevon’s Excitable Boy on vinyl, and although “Veracruz” is a tad slow and “Tenderness on The Block” clearly has a blah Jackson Browne influence, two moderate missteps on an album of nine songs are decent odds. Or maybe, as Steely Dan puts it, “she thinks I’m crazy, but I’m just growing old.”
Brubaker: I don’t like to cop to this, but I’m not a terribly effective album reviewer. Back when I was reviewing 1-2 albums a week for The Fiddleback, I did this thing where most of my reviews ended up being more like analytical essays. The reason was simple: the more I dug into an album, the more of interest I found, even if I wasn’t particularly interested in the album to begin with. And sometimes, finding interesting things in not-great albums would trick me into being really enthusiastic about said albums. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists’ Living With the Living is a tranwreck—but for a few months after its release, I was convinced it was a masterpiece because it was so interesting as a failure. I did the same thing with M.I.A’s |\/|/\Y/\, and Tyler the Creator’s Goblin. Before Kanye’s 808’s and Heartbreaks was retconned from a floundering, flat LP with a few hot sides to a genre-redefining masterpiece, I did the same with it.
All of that is to say, I get what you’re saying about this Christine and the Queens album. Here’s a little behind the scenes info for our readers: we began exchanging emails about Christine and the Queens the week before Thanksgiving. I listened to the album a ton and found a lot of it interesting. I had almost convinced myself I loved the album, that it would make my year end list, that it was a truly great and important album. And then I traveled for Thanksgiving and didn’t listen to the album at all, and returning to it now…I really dig about three songs, here. I like “iT,” “Saint Claude,” and “Tilted.” “Paradis Perdus” is memorable mostly for its Kanye-quoting chorus, and I do kind of dig the Perfume Genius collaboration, more for its subtle, eighties synths—I hear “Time After Time” meets early-eighties Phil Collins in the backing track, and I love it—than the songwriting or vocal performances.
All that said, as interesting as this album is, I completely agree with you (up to the dig on 1989—them’s fightin’ words.) that much of it just falls a little flat.
Cudmore: I would rather EAT BEES than even hear Taylor Swift’s name. I hate her with every fiber of my being. She is the Christie Masters of pop music, fake-sweet and nasty.
But imma be perfectly honest — I almost never listen to new music. I’m pretty settled into my groove, so for me, it’s just delving deeper and deeper and deeper into the Steely Dan wormhole. Which is WHY Christine and the Queens was such a revelation for me. Because it was new and beautiful. Because the chord changes, to paraphrase Nick Hornby in High Fidelity, melt my guts, and I listen to it over and over.
But yeah, coming back to it, the magic was gone. “St. Claude” and “Tilted” are good, and I kind of dig “Half Ladies,” but I’m pretty sure it’s back to Katy Lied for me.
James Brubaker is the Associate Editor of The Collapsar.