Album Review: Christine & the Queens – PARANOÏA, ANGELS, TRUE LOVE

[Because Music; 2023]

Five years ago, Angels In America returned to the stage in New York City under the direction of Tony Award-winner Marianne Elliott. The New Yorker’s Hilton Als went off-roading in his review, complaining that a few younger theatergoers interpret some of the play as camp and laugh at parts that send older theatergoers back to the horrors of when their friends were dying of AIDS. 

It’s an entirely relatable frustration, given how many post-pandemic gripes are about nagging inconveniences and not the millions of deaths. The HIV virus still vexes its own millions, though AIDS has become decidedly less lethal. With the benefit of knowing the outcome, perhaps it doesn’t seem so serious. In the 80s and 90s, however, and despite it being their disease, it felt apocalyptic. The normally unflappable George Carlin even argued that nature was ridding itself of humanity and admired the poetry of a virus attacking us right where we reproduce.   

Als would be pleased with PARANOÏA, ANGELS, TRUE LOVE. The fourth Christine and the Queens album uses Tony Kushner’s revered play as its springboard, coming to it from its own experience with loss. Heloise Letissier merges her Christine and the Queens personalities of Chris (he/him) and Redcar (the latter from 2022’s Redcar les adorables étoiles (prologue)) and has created an intense, engrossing, exhaustive set that’s worthy of its inspiration. The concept alone was enough to lure Mike Dean, Madonna, and 070 Shake. According to Letissier, Dean reached out asking to collaborate and was probably taken aback by the enormity of the project: three acts, 20 tracks, 97 minutes. (Kanye West is the New York of artists, apparently: if Dean can survive the making of Life Of Pablo, he can make it anywhere.)

Christine and the Queens’ sound had been getting darker already. Artful applications of late-80s/early-90s sounds still apply, but the gravity of the subject necessitated an even more sober atmosphere. The first single, “To be honest”, augured the darker textures and dampened spirit, “Feeling kind of loveless / but always ready to try”. The two follow-up singles, “True love” and “Tears can be so soft”, both fly past the five-minute mark – something Christine and the Queens has only done a handful of times previously. Without regurgitating any of them, PARANOÏA frequently evokes the weight of albums like Björk’s Homogenic, Tricky’s Pre-Millennium Tension, and Massive Attack’s Mezzanine.  

The overture for the first act threatens to scare off the timid. Chris references “the light” several times in a heavy whisper, giving the sensation that PARANOÏA will be Game Of Thrones-level epic. The direction changes quickly with “Tears can be so soft”, which opens on an unusually dissonant Marvin Gaye sample – Gaye is one of the album’s many subplots – and then establishes why we’re here: “I miss my mother / Miss my mother / Miss my mother at night.” While the album generally consists of three thematic sections, the death of Letissier’s mother in 2019 floods every corner and is the soil from which themes of fear, religion, the afterlife, pain, and intimacy take their root. The track – which hints at Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” with Prince-style vocal harmonies – finds comfort in weeping’s release, but it isn’t long before the comfort fades and Chris’ head is swimming. “Full of life” juxtaposes Rihanna with Pachelbel’s “Canon” – typically associated with weddings but not here – and single words ricochet: “Fighting! Fucking! Lonely!” 

Madonna – given tribute in several songs via lines such as “Open your heart”, “Deeper and deeper” and “Oh father” – arrives on “Angels crying in my bed” in spoken word; her character is One Big Eye, an omnipotent figure reflecting a divine woman and perhaps shades of the deceased. Her lines segue into the 11-minute close of part one and the album centerpiece, “Track 10”.  In it, Angels In America references are in full flow, Chris slips in and out of lucidity, and a stuttering drum-and-bass beat signals increasing panic.  The song’s a striking portrait of anxiety: an air-raid siren pushes Chris from heavily French-accented English into a gravelly, Stevie Nicks-cum-Miguel wail, trying to fill an empty heart with degrading sex – Hendrix guitar adding raw libido. 

The guitar twists into a Bon Iver-ish robotic squall, voiced by Dean in the second overture. Highlighted by a pair of 070 Shake cameos, Act 2 commences with the Eye dispensing grace. Part prayer and part illumination, “True love” ticks to the sound of a hospital heart monitor and mixes the angel with the Angels character Belize (“Make me forget my mother / with your dark brown eyes staring at me”), while “Let me touch you once” seeks to turn the religious experience into something more Prince-y and sexualised, pivoting into French so Chris can more precisely say what he means.  

“Shine” seems to indicate that the final act presents a sort of resolution, but as with so much of the album stress is right around the corner. Madonna’s possessed performance in “Lick the light out” pushes the Eye to all of its supernatural extremes but finally breaks Chris’ fever. The remaining, exultant tracks present a heightened consciousness, frequently dipping into gospel until album-closer “Big Eye” returns slightly to the “Teardrop” elements from the beginning.   

Double and triple albums naturally sprawl, yet there’s an unexpected compactness to PARANOÏA. An unabridged Angels In America spans two, four-hour parts and was not only about AIDS, so the door was open for Chris to keep pulling on thread. It should be underscored that PARANOÏA is not the play, and is occasionally indulgent. It’s possible the presence of Dean and Madonna – as Chris’ angels both in the studio and the narrative – kept him on the straight and narrow. If there was any heartache along the way, well, they can laugh about it now.