My review of Frou Frou, Imogen Heap’s collaboration with Guy Sigsworth, had less to do with the music and more to do with how certain music can take on meaning based on what the listener is experiencing at a certain point in life. The truth is that I have an unusually strong attachment to that particular album because it helped me make sense of things during a rather volatile period. Reading the review six years later, I don’t think it’s a particularly good review and probably should have been categorized under Chick Riffs, where I give myself the freedom to occasionally get things off my ample and aesthetically pleasing chest. As I don’t go back and correct reviews unless I discover a factual error, the “review” will remain as-is to remind me that I can always do better next time, no matter how many next times come my way.
Let’s see how that advice-to-self works out with the album that made Imogen Heap famous.
The most important thing to know about Imogen Heap is that she is classically-trained. I too am classically-trained, and I consider that adjective the ultimate double-edged sword. When you are classically-trained you learn a lot about music theory as defined by the Western musical paradigm and how to apply that knowledge on the instrument or instruments of your choice. As Ted Gioia recently pointed out in a video talk, that paradigm dates back to Pythagoras, the mathematician who designed the scales that have defined Western music for centuries and set down the rules that limited music to the notes in those scales. While classical lessons are valuable in terms of appreciating musical structure and range, they carry with them a whole lot of unnecessary baggage that falls under the heading of mathematical perfectionism. When you go to the symphony, you will never hear the first violinist or the second trombonist vary from the script as written down in those funny little symbols on, below or above those inadequately structured lines; if you did, your next encounter with that wayward musician would take place at the unemployment office.
That is why my mother insisted I train in both classical and jazz styles. Before you learn jazz, though, you have to get solid training in blues scales, those wonders of African origin that ignored Pythagoras by bending notes and using chord combinations that the superstitious traced to the devil. Most jazz musicians understand music theory and many are in fact classically-trained, but rather than following the timeworn rules, they use the looser sensibility of the blues as a springboard for play. When I practiced Mozart on my flute, I never felt like I was playing. I felt like I was working after studying very hard, and I only felt good when I got it right. Jazz musicians play, in the simplest and most precious definition of the word, exploring outside the lines for new sound combinations. There is no right in jazz, and trying too hard to get it right destroys the feel.
Though her music may not sound “classical” due to the dominance of electronic instruments and software-produced sound, there is indeed strong classical influence running through Imogen Heap’s music, largely manifested in the pursuit of her concept of perfectionism. Her songs at this juncture of her career rarely strayed from standard pop structures, and her melodies lacked the slightest hints of blue notes. Even the “natural instruments” used on her records are often passed through various gates and processors in the pursuit of the ideal. Here’s what she said to CW Entertainment while plugging Speak for Yourself:
Actually, many of the sounds that I work with start off as organic instruments — guitar, piano, clarinet, etc. But I do love the rigidity of electronic drums. For this record, I would record live drums, and then I would spend a day editing them to take the life out of them. I like to breathe my own life into these sounds, and I do try to keep the ‘air’ in the music. Some people think electronic music is cold, but I think that has more to do with the people listening than the actual music itself.
Peter Gabriel had a similar hang-up with cymbals, those messy accessories that are so difficult to manage in the recording process. Since I have never once noticed the drums on an Imogen Heap album, I’d say she certainly succeeded in taking the life out of them, and might want to ease up on the editing or get a larger air supply. Her defense of electronic music sounds a bit snarky, as in “if people don’t like my music there’s something wrong with their ears,” but somewhat understandable because a lot of people won’t listen to electronic music simply because it’s electronic.
I’m in the middle on the topic of technology and music. If the creators know what they’re doing, I’m cool with it. If they’re just screwing around with software, they bore me. I think the trend of sampling other people’s music to enhance your own is as lazy as lazy gets, but that’s pretty much my feeling about all rap, hip-hop and modern pop music, where sampling is most frequently employed.
As for Speak for Yourself, it’s something of a mixed bag. Most of the arrangements are extraordinarily busy, as if Imogen was having too much fun adding cool effects instead of stepping back and considering the cumulative impact on the composition. With one or two exceptions, her lyrical emphasis on inner dialogue and one-sided conversations that worked so well on Frou Frou doesn’t work as well here, largely because she too often resorts to clichés and catchwords, and partially because most of the stories deal with failed relationships, which gets old after a while. Again, with one or two exceptions, the music hasn’t progressed all that much from Frou Frou except for a few interesting effects; if you’re looking for something more diverse (and with less noisy arrangements), fast forward to her next album, Ellipse. Essentially, Speak for Yourself is Frou Frou redux with at least one masterpiece, backed by a stronger PR effort courtesy of American television shows like The O. C., Criminal Minds and Ghost Whisperer.
The opening song, “Headlock,” is one of the most predictable songs I’ve ever heard, and I have no idea how it became a single or even made it on to the album. I knew from the get-go that the overture, a mild combination of celeste-like beeps, cello and synth fills was a set-up for the overused soft-LOUD technique, and sure enough, we get the predictably “sudden” explosion of full stereo sound in the second chorus. The lyrics fall far short of interesting, a one-sided attack on a partner centered around a weak metaphor (the headlock) and a cliché (“You know you’re better than this”). If you’re going to start an album in a minor key, you better make the song as sexy as fuck, but “Headlock” is about as sexy as a migraine headache.
“Goodnight and Go” finds Imogen in a relationship with a married man bemoaning her fate as the partner who has to sleep alone once the guy gets his rocks off. The man’s alleged appeal is captured in the dreadful line, “Why d’ya have to be so cute,” and his cuteness is so compelling that she has to surreptitiously follow him home and peep through the window to watch him strip. The juxtaposition of “cute” and “naked man” calls up a picture of a dick dressed up as a finger puppet with a smile face on the head—not exactly an irresistibly erotic image. What saves the track from oblivion is the all-too-brief appearance of Jeff Beck, who seriously rips it on the solo, a welcome break from the electronic barrage.
“Have You Got It in You” is pretty much a copy of the opening track (minor key, bring in the rest of the electronic band on the second chorus) with layered vocals designed to reflect the inner dialogue going on in Imogen’s head. Let’s just say it’s not half as interesting as Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses and move on to “Loose Ends,” an incredibly annoying pop song that barely rises above the level of Bob Crewe’s “Music to Watch Girls Go By.”
Let’s recap the game as we head into the fifth inning. Imogen has filled the scoreboard with a string of zeroes augmented with a bloop single in the second, a stray walk and a couple of errors. The pent-up energy of the fans manifests itself in the overwhelming excitement they display while rooting for their favorite color in that stupid motorboat race that appears on the giant screen. Once the hysteria dies down, they debate whether or not to go for another round of hot dogs and garlic fries or stay in their seats in the hope that Imogen’s bats will come out of their slumber.
Stay in your seats, folks, because Imogen is about to hit a grand slam.
“Hide and Seek” is the direct result of one of those happy accidents that often result in a great recording.
My favorite computer blew up on me. But I didn’t want to leave the studio without having done anything that day. I saw the [DigiTech Vocalist Workstation] on a shelf and just plugged it into my little 4-track MiniDisc with my mic and my keyboard and pressed Record. The first thing that I sang was those first few lines, ‘Where are we? What the hell is going on?’ I set the vocalist to a four-note polyphony, so even if I play 10 notes on the keyboard, it will only choose four of them. It’s quite nicely surprising when it comes back with a strange combination. When it gets really high in the second chorus, that’s a result of it choosing higher rather than low notes, so I ended up going even higher to compensate, above the chord. I recorded it in, like, four-and-a-half minutes, and it ended up on the album in exactly the structure of how it came out of me then. I love it because it doesn’t feel like my song. It just came out of nowhere, and I’m not questioning that one at all.
This dramatic monologue sung from the perspective of an adolescent girl experiencing the break-up of her parents’ marriage is thankfully delivered a cappella, with only a few stray background sounds of home life (a sizzling frying pan, for example) adding slight contrast to the vocal. The Digitech creates a powerful compressive effect that serves to intensify the bitterness of the girl’s feelings, like a volcanic stream of emotion running through a sieve. A cappella is often used as a device to draw attention to story and storyteller, and rather than distract from the dual sense of intimacy and vulnerability of that form, the electronic effects serve to magnify both. Imogen also varies her phrasing (in addition to the variance added by a delay effect) to mirror the stutter-stop cadence of emotional expression, integrating her natural and breathy voices to express the broad range of the girl’s stewing emotions. The result is a uniquely compelling and emotive listing experience.
The sad and stark landscape of a family falling apart is highlighted through images involving the removal of artifacts that meant home: standing lamps leaving “crop circles,” pictures of the family in happier times exchanged for unsightly marks:
The dust has only just begun to form
Crop circles in the carpet, sinking feeling . . .
Oily marks appear on walls
Where pleasure moments hung before the takeover
The sweeping insensitivity of this still life
Imogen’s pause between “this” and “still life” on that last line communicates the magnitude of the change; the girl first describes her experience as indescribable (“THIS”) before finding the words “still life,” a powerful image of motionlessness, of life frozen in time.
Equally striking passages are found when Imogen shifts to rhythmic phrasing as the girl confronts one or both parents. The anger at her abandonment is expressed through lines dripping with sarcasm in response to the empty reassurance dished out by the grown-ups:
Mm, what’d you say?
Mm, that you only meant well
Well of course you did
Mm, what’d you say?
Mm, that it’s all for the best
Of course it is
Mm, what’d you say?
Mm, that it’s just what we need
And you decided this
Mm, what’d you say?
Mm, what did she say?
As they continue to blather on with their guilt-ridden attempt at consolation, the girl shifts to inner dialogue, as if she’s having an out-of-body experience that enables her to see through the pathetic façade:
Ransom notes keep falling out your mouth
Amid sweet talk, newspaper word cutouts
Speak no feeling, no, unbelieving
You don’t care a bit, you don’t care a bit
Imogen sings this pattern in a higher pitch and stiffer cadence, layering a second vocal that combines echoes of the main lyric with wordless vocalizations that say “Oh, no, this can’t be happening” far more effectively than words. The song fades on the repetition of “You don’t care a bit,” expressing adolescent feelings completely free of empathy for what the adults are going through—unfair, perhaps, but true to the character. “Hide and Seek” is a one-of-a-kind experience, a uniquely powerful and rich creation that expresses and evokes emotion with exceptional delivery and impact. An absolute masterpiece.
Well, she had to follow it up with something, but did she really have to follow such a grand masterwork with a song that begins with the phrase, “Knock, knock?” Sorry, I can’t resist:
Imogen there’s no heaven . . .
It’s the perfect lead-in for a really dumb song that uses the security guard phrase “clear the area” to communicate who knows what. The song seems to involve a relationship between narrator and a guy with a drinking problem, but if she was trying to craft a piece to highlight the problems of co-dependence, well, she needed to try harder.
Imogen finally gets hot and nasty with distorted guitar and the near-metal intensity with “Daylight Robbery.” Her unrestrained vocal is a welcome change from the norm, a Dionysian display of joy in the thrills of city lights and excess (which she defines as “the new moderation”). One or two more songs with this kind of erotic intensity would have been welcome to relieve the downbeat mood that dominates the album. “The Walk” comes close with the strongest pop arrangement on the record, but the narrator’s I want it/I don’t want it attitude towards sex dulls the erotic edge, and the sudden emergence of a metaphor that likens the experience of a woman on the sexual fence to a sea-going vessel under attack really kills the mood. When I’m feeling it in my nether regions, I don’t have an overwhelming urge to pop Das Boot into the DVD player.
“Just for Now” was a holiday song rejected by the producers of The O. C. for being “too dark.” Funny, I would have rejected it for being too obvious—a too obvious regurgitation of things dysfunctional families do during the season to be jolly. That weak song is followed by Imogen’s even weaker attempt at sex kitten status, “I Am in Love with You,” where once again the ready-and-willing female falls out of love at the crucial moment. “Closing In” features a never-ending stream of electronic sounds, vanilla sex lyrics and finally, for the first time, I DO notice the drums—bloody awful. Speak for Yourself ends with the rather gloomy “The Moment I Said It,” partially rescued by contrasting melodies that are quite interesting and hint at greater possibilities in the future.
Those possibilities would be more fully realized on her next album, Ellipse, where she diversifies her music and significantly enhances her production and arrangement skills. Speak for Yourself was her first attempt at self-production, a difficult task for any artist, and she still needed more time and practice narrowing down the infinite possibilities of electronic music to form coherent, disciplined compositions. Essentially Speak for Yourself is “Hide and Seek,” “Daylight Robbery” and several other pieces that needed more time on the scratch pad.
Still, if you’ve composed a masterpiece on the level of “Hide and Seek,” you can take deep satisfaction in your work and try to do better next time.
Welcome to a new world, guys.
I direct my welcome to men specifically because men have set the rules for almost all of human history. Being born male comes with a sense of entitlement in nearly every culture on earth. This gift from history has convinced many men that they have everything to lose and much to fear by giving up control of the rule-making system. Women who have learned to play the game and have become experts in manipulating male insecurities to secure a comfortable life also fear such a change.
Héloïse Adelaide Letissier aka Christine, Chris, Christine and the Queens, etc. is a French singer-songwriter who represents a threat to the status quo. This is in part because Letissier is pansexual, attracted to personalities as opposed to genders. Even in the countries without draconian punishments for woman-to-woman sex, such a person is likely perceived by half the population as a threat to social stability, a woman living in sin, or both. But it is her willingness and ability to challenge feminine norms and ideals that amplifies the threat she represents to traditional gender roles. In an interview with The Guardian, she remarked, “A huge taboo now is still a woman’s desire. We are forgotten – it’s like we are supposed to sustain other people’s desire because we are desirable objects. What if we desire ourselves? So I feel like what could be shocking is not even me being naked, but me wanting to fuck someone and talking about it really simply – ‘I just want to fuck your bones.’”
She complements her instincts to challenge taboos with genuine musical talent. Her music is heavily electronic, and on Chaleur Humaine, beautifully melodic and both soothing and intense at the same time. Her chord structures fit well within the boundaries of classic pop music, with an occasional nod to hip-hop and rap. Chaleur Humaine is not a loud album, and there’s very little in the way of unpleasant noises or rough patches. Letissier’s voice takes center stage, a highly captivating voice capable of impressive range movement and tonal variation. If you’re looking for something more obviously energetic, I refer you to her latest release, Chris. Personally, I find the relative stillness of Chaleur Humaine more engaging.
I use the word “engaging” deliberately, as Letissier’s music and personality are strongly oriented towards engaging other people and forming connections. You feel this desire to engage in her live performances, and it is something she claims to practice in daily life. From the Guardian interview:
I have no charisma, so people never come over to me,” she says. As an experiment she recently walked home through the neighbourhood with her “chakras open”, attempting to engage strangers. “I thought I should try to be awake and make loads of eye contact,” she says, splaying her fingers either side of her eyes. “It worked!”
Having grown up in San Francisco with its openness to non-standard sexual variations and New Age philosophies, I view Letissier as completely non-threatening and would be delighted to have her over to my place for dinner and conversation (putting aside for a moment that I would never agree to meet an artist I’ve reviewed or might review). I too qualify as pansexual, and though I’m not all that interested in spiritual philosophies, I understand the theory surrounding chakras and can follow someone’s drift when they go there. The statement above concerning female desire could have come from my mouth, and in reading her back story, I learned that we both had a traumatic experience in our twenties. All things considered, I feel simpatico with her personal choices, history, lifestyle and beliefs.
Still, admiring someone as a person doesn’t automatically mean that I care for their music. I think Bruce Springsteen is musically talented and a pretty cool guy but his music is not my cup of tea. Translation: I’m not going to give her a pass simply because we share fuck habits.
Letissier sings in both French and English, sometimes mingling the languages in the same song. Letissier’s lyrical style when using her native French is poetic, with strong metaphors, concrete language and memorable imagery; when she writes in English, the lyrics are comparatively simple and meanings are easier to grasp. Letissier shared her approach with the folks at Hello Giggles:
The language is actually a weird part of the process from the beginning, even with my French album. Some songs have an English chorus and a French verse. In the beginning, in France, people were like, “Why don’t you write the whole song in French or a whole song in English?” I like to play with the two languages because for me, it’s a different way of writing. Of course, when I’m writing in English, I don’t have the same tools as when I write in French, because I’m not bilingual. It’s quite naive and direct. With French, I’m more at ease, I can play more with images and rhythm.
In both languages she displays an impressive grasp of the importance of strong hooks—she nearly always goes for the home run somewhere in her songs. Her arrangements are well thought-out and feature marvelous builds. Given her talent, the intrigue attached to her sexual orientation and her multilingual presentation, it’s no surprise that this album entered the Top 10 in every nearly every country in the Western world save one: the United States.
Knock me over with a feather.
Letissier’s live performances are disciplined and heavily choreographed, with supporting musicians and dancers who straddle the line between modern ballet and hip-hop. She sings as beautifully on stage as she does in the studio, and holds the crowd in the palm of her hand with her voice and disarming presence. When I saw her live, I noticed one quirk above all—one that is decidedly un-French. She smiles spontaneously, and her smile is as pure and beautiful as any smile I’ve ever seen.
There are multiple versions of this album under different titles. It was released in most countries as Chaleur Humaine, but in the damn-them-furinners-and-their-furrin-languages USA you’ll find it under the title Christine and the Queens. I have the original French version; the English-speaking edition features different tracks and translations, most notably involving the song “Christine,” which was renamed “Titled.” For this review, I’m sticking with the original French version because the lyrics are more to my liking.
Or, to put in another way, screw American xenophobia.
Chaleur Humaine begins with a dramatic combination of piano and synth that give way quickly to the beats that form the lean accompaniment for most of Letissier’s vocal on the opening track, “iT.” Letissier wrote the song after she was expelled from a Lyon drama school because she had the nerve to produce her own play, something only male students were allowed to do. She describes it as a song “about wanting to have a dick just in order to have an easier life,” an offhand way of saying she’d like to have the privileges automatically granted to penis holders. The opening line refers to Emily Dickinson (“With it, I become the death Dickinson feared”), though I’m not sure if the reference is to “I heard a fly buzz when I died,” “Because I could not stop for death,” or “I felt a funeral in my brain.” What’s important is the empathetic reference to a great woman poet who was virtually unknown in her lifetime: if Emily had been cursed with a penis, people would have taken her more seriously. The phallus-wish expressed in the chorus shouldn’t be taken literally, as I doubt Letissier really wants one of those peculiar protuberances that men are so proud of, but the words can also be heard as the triumphant cry of a trans person with the wherewithal to afford the operation:
Cause I’ve got it
I’m a man now
I’ve got it
I’m a man now
And I won’t let you steal iT
I bought it for myself
I’m a man now
Her voice on the piece is clear, strong and unashamed; the tone is one of the defiant pride reflected in a line she later delivers in “Christine”—“j’ai le menton haut pour un rien“—for which the best English equivalent is “I hold my head up high . . . just because.” The result is both beautiful and moving.
“Saint Claude” features French verses and an English chorus, but the key to understanding the song is that the title refers to a train station, that enduring symbol of life’s arrivals, departures and missed connections. The story describes an incident where Letissier witnessed the harassment of an “extravagant” boy on public transport—extravagant because he wore some makeup and had a partially-visible tattoo. In real life, Letissier did not intervene on behalf of the boy (probably a smart thing from the standpoint of personal safety), and wrote the song as an apology for not standing up against the bullies on his behalf. In the song, her reimagined self sits with the boy, noticing his “souffle façade” (uneven, jerky breathing) and describing the details of his appearance that set him apart from the crowd. She ends the first verse reflecting on an image of tension and distress:
J’emporte un portrait dévoré
Douleur, destin bord à bord
As we’re dealing with poetry here, a direct translation results in nonsense, but what she’s saying in colloquial English is “I take away a portrait of a person devoured, in pain, his destiny (in the sense that manifesting true self leaves him open to attack) engulfing his soul.” Letissier then switches to English to express what she wishes she would have expressed in that moment, an offer of support that he can choose to accept or reject:
Here’s my station
Here’s my station
But if you say just one word I’ll stay with you
Her voice on that chorus is achingly beautiful, and it’s very clear from her tone that she wants the boy to accept the offer. The second verse features some clever wordplay as Letissier uses the orthographic similarities of the verb respire (to breathe) and the adverb pire (worse) to encourage him to pay attention to the “violence” of his breathing and the fight-flight syndrome it represents; it ends with her empathizing with the hard reality of his situation, describing the city they inhabit as “dead” (in the sense of backwards, stuck in the past) and reminding him of the courage it takes to survive in such a place. In the fade, she adds the phrase, “We are so lonely in this part of town,” a break from the pattern than powerfully captures the isolation that often follows the refusal to conform. Even if you don’t understand a word of French and have no desire to learn, the power of her performance in “Saint Claude” is truly remarkable and certainly worth a few minutes of your time:
“Christine” continues the theme of the challenges inherent in different-ness by focusing on the difficulty of finding one’s balance in an unsupportive environment; it is also the name of the persona she wanted to project on this album (the second album Chris reflects a different aspect of her personality). Letissier had some difficulty with this song, unfortunately titled “Cripple” in the original English version, a slip that says more about the problems inherent in translation than her intent. In the French version, it’s clear she’s talking about the challenge of what we call “having your feet firmly planted on the ground,” but the line she uses in French to express that feeling forms a double entendre which was lost in the translation to English. The usual phrase for “I can’t stand up” in French is formed with the verb se lever, but Letissier used the more colloquial se tener, resulting in je ne tiens pas debout. “Je ne tiens pas” is a polite way of saying “I don’t give a shit,” so when Latissier sang the translated line in English—“I actually do enjoy being a cripple”—she was attempting to embrace her perceived disability as a non-conformist and that she didn’t give a shit what anyone thought. By the time she re-released the song in English, she had learned her lesson and used the safer word “Tilted” for the song title. Despite all the twists and turns involved in linguistic communication, “Christine” is generally a nicely-flowing piece integrating flute sounds with a seriously compressed, gated and squished synth that sounds like the comfort of a warm pillow. I don’t care much for the rap passage, as I don’t care for rap in any language, but she executes it with competence.
The English version of “Science Fiction” is so radically different from the original French that they’re really two different songs with two different messages. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this one as I don’t care at all for the disco feel or the annoyingly spacey sounds that accompany the arrangement, but I’ll give Latissier credit for throwing a line of Italian into the mix, spiced with male harmony. The arrangement and her performance on the hybrid song “Paradis Perdus” are much stronger but I’d rather listen to Letissier’s own compositions than an integration of an old Christophe-Jarre song with Kanye West’s “Heartless.” That said, I can’t deny the stunning immediacy and excellent delivery in her performance:
Letissier describes “Half Ladies” as a song “about being a different type of girl, an awkward girl, but being beautiful in that way.” The French version is rich in imagery and metaphor, capturing the competing pressures attached to a woman’s desire to expand the definition of “femininity” beyond cultural boundaries. The first verse cleverly describes how the simple act of choosing what to wear—a daily struggle for many women given the heavier expectations attached to our appearance—is a form of communication that can be easily misinterpreted:
Cheveux en arrière
Col boutonné haut
C’est moins pour l’allure
Que pour cacher l’éraflure
Translation and breakdown: The woman here has chosen to pin her hair up rather than allowing it to fall seductively on her shoulders; she also chooses a high-button collar to finish the look. While that image calls up “prim-and-proper,” she feels it necessary to explain that “it’s less about the allure” because “prim-and-proper” often represents the ultimate challenge to the male of the species—the desire to “break that cold bitch.” While that gives the woman pause, an overriding consideration leads her to dress in that manner: “Que pour cacher l’éraflure,” meaning “to hide the scratch.” While that could refer to damage arising from rough sex (hinted at in the second verse), it could have also resulted from a simple accident—but heaven help the woman who fails to hide such an obvious flaw! While I was writing this review, an American friend sent me a picture of Bernie Sanders campaigning in public with a gauze bandage on his head, asking the obvious question, “Could a woman candidate do the same thing and get away with it?” The answer is equally obvious—fuck no! The beauty industry spends billions on advertising to reinforce this culturally-induced sensitivity of ours, and we fall for the pitch while simultaneously savoring and resenting the compliments we get when we “look beautiful.” What Letissier is asking us to do in “Half-Ladies” is expand our definition of beauty, an act that requires a cultural shift concerning what constitutes a “beautiful woman,” which puts the entire notion of “woman” up for debate. Given her obvious commitment to manifest the true self, Letissier ends the song in proud defiance of gender norms:
Si je ne veux pas être une grande fille
Je serai un petit garçon
Pour chaque insulte lancé
Il pousse un grain de beauté
The translation is tricky because of the multi-layered nature of the poetry, but essentially she’s saying “I don’t want to be a big girl, so I’ll be a little boy, and each insult flung my way will make me more beautiful.” The last line actually describes a chemical reaction where the insults create “beauty marks,” but the context indicates that Letissier was using “grain de beauté” more metaphorically than literally. Musically, “Half Ladies” begins quietly, Letissier’s gentle voice supported by keyboard, low-volume beats and soft hand-clapping. The music builds ever-so-subtly to one of those home-run choruses that sticks in your head for days.
The title track sits nicely at the halfway point in the album, serving as the thematic centerpiece of the work. Most English-speaking commentators translate “Chaleur Humaine” as “human warmth,” a Disney-esque interpretation if there ever was one. While the word can refer to the warmth of cordiality, chaleur is more commonly associated with heat, and the sexual connotations of the word are similar to the English connotations. It’s pretty clear from the opening verses that Letissier favors the sexual interpretation:
Je suis contre les chastetés
Toutes celles que glissent sous l’oreiller
Des Cupidons aux lèvres abîmées
Sur le sexe les jambes repliées
Essentially this is a position statement in which she comes out against chastity, vanilla sex, Cupids with “damaged lips” and legs crossed to hide the crotch. In the second verse, she adds the closed mouth, completing the list of symbols of sexual denial. The first two verses reminded me of the contrasting images from Histoire d’O where the women in the château were trained to communicate constant availability through parted lips, open crotches and easily accessible ass cracks. Letissier falls short of advocating that particular lifestyle, and while she does refer to what can be translated as “gratitude for bleeding,” she prefaces that phrase by referring to the healing power of a caress, so the gratitude could simply mean she’s thankful that her heart is pumping away. In essence, Letissier is questioning the cultural division of love into “nice, cuddly, socially acceptable love” and “naughty, socially-repressed love marked by passion and lust,” and argues that both deserve appreciation as expressions of human warmth. The music has the steadiness of a march with little chordal variation, suitable for a statement of one’s core beliefs.
The most musically erotic song on Chaleur Humaine describes a narcissist making love, which would leave one to believe that the song deals with masturbation. What complicates the interpretation of “Narcissus Is Back” is the heavy use of mirrors, so the song could deal with the act of self-satisfaction (though there is no mention of a dildo), an intimate relationship with a narcissist or an exposé of one’s own narcissistic self-consciousness during a fuck. The ambiguity could be attributed to Letissier writing in English, but whatever the cause, I like the ambiguity and the edgy, sexy arrangement so much that this is the only song on Chaleur Humaine to make my fuck playlists—the greatest endorsement I have to offer.
“Ugly-Pretty” is even more narcissistic in the sense that it deals with the “excessive interest in one’s personal appearance.” Written in English with a spoken-word passage in French, I appreciate Letissier continuing the conversation about the culturally-induced female obsession with beauty, but I think the topic was covered more effectively in Imogen Heap’s “Bad Body Double” on her Ellipse album.
“Nuit 17 à 52” is a vignette covering the development of what turns out to be a dysfunctional romance where the participants struggle with identity and image as they pass the stage of superficial getting-to-know-you into a transitional stage covering nights 17 to 52. During this period the narrator experiences an eventually overwhelming urge to tear down the façade and reveal the true self. This happens on the fiftieth night, where she “cuts it open” so the partner is able to see through the façade. The narrator recognizes that this choice is likely to be a relationship-ending decision, as captured in the line “Et je hais déjà la triste nuit 53” (“I already hate the sad night 53”). This is one instance where the storyline—or, more accurately, the essential meaning of the song—is best captured in the video, where Letissier portrays multiple layers of self in a performance that exposes the falsity inherent in traditional gender definitions:
Chaleur Humaine closes with the half-English, half-French song “Here,” an appropriate choice of language for a song about her temporary exile in England where she connected with the drag queen musicians who would later perform with her as The Queens. She likens the experience to the phoenix—“Et mon curieux visage est né/Des débris du grand incendie” (“And my curious face is born/From the debris of the great fire”)—with the curieux visage underscoring that the new life also represents a new identity. The music here is more about mood, rather like an electronic Phillip Glass piece that serves as a tribute to one of the composers Latissier has identified as an influence. What really holds your attention is one of the strongest vocals on the album, conveying the overwhelming appreciation of the trauma survivor who has been given the opportunity to move forward.
Chaleur Humaine reveals Letissier as an artist of unusual courage and clear intent. While that intent sometimes gets lost in translation, the voice you hear is the voice of a human being asserting her right to be respected for her choices in manifesting her true self. It is a beautiful voice, an expressive voice, a voice that reflects the best tendencies and talents of the human race. If her message feels threatening to some, whether due to religious dogma or male entitlement, well, that’s what an artist is supposed to do—attempt to open hearts and minds by challenging our worst tendencies so that the best parts of ourselves can come out of hiding.