Christine and the Queens: Redcar les Adorables Étoiles review – clouds of sorrow from the artist’s new persona

In 2016, Christine and the Queens appeared on British TV for the first time. It was, by common consent, one of the great music television debuts: an exquisitely choreographed, effortlessly executed performance of breakthrough hit Tilted that unexpectedly surged into a cover of I Feel for You, in tribute to its recently deceased author, Prince. Even when the artist reemerged as Chris on 2018’s album of the same name, the vision remained immaculate. It all seemed incredibly cool and expertly done, the work of a hugely talented artist in complete control.

It makes for a striking and slightly troubling contrast with the arrival of Christine and the Queens’ third album, Redcar les Adorables Étoiles. It seems to have been beset by disagreements between artist and record label, which have spilled on to social media. A certain confusion surrounds the whole enterprise, which involves the introduction of a new persona, Redcar. Redcar is a masculine figure – the artist at the centre of Christine and the Queens, Héloïse Letissier, recently came out as a trans man – named after the red vehicles that began to take on significance for him in the wake of his mother’s sudden death in 2019. And there, all attempts at explication flounder. Like blockbuster movies, the most successful pop personae can be summarised with a neat one-line pitch. Ziggy Stardust: gay alien pop star. The Fly: the diametric opposite of earnest old Bono. Sasha Fierce: like Beyoncé, only sexier and more aggressive.

Redcar, though, feels complicated to the point of impenetrability. On his Instagram feed, there have been videos of him dressed as a besuited businessman, sitting behind a desk, chopping up a cucumber and singing in a falsetto voice; as a dominatrix wielding a belt like a whip; as a sailor with a limp; and heavily made-up and wearing what looks like a fez. There is an awful lot of fringe theatre gurning and eye-popping going on in all of them, and an awful lot of baffling accompanying text: “Redcar upgrade absurdos legendary. Poetry little bird grand enfant period glove dysphoria redcar.” It doesn’t feel as though Letissier is being wilfully obscure – but it’s nearly impossible to understand on any metaphorical or narrative level.

Perhaps it’s best to just abandon the album’s conceptual aspect and concentrate on the music: 13 tracks apparently written and recorded in a two-week burst, which act as a kind of prelude to a second Redcar album, due for release next year. Faint traces of the 80s boogie influence that powered Chris are occasionally audible – as on the staccato funk bassline of Ma Bien Aimée Byebye – but for the most part, Redcar les Adorables Étoiles is noticeably more abstract and cloudy than anything the artist has previously released: smeared synthesizer tones are its keynote sound; there’s no song as straightforwardly appealing as Girlfriend or Tilted. That said, there are moments when his innate songwriting ability is very much in evidence: the melody of Ma Bien Aimée Byebye is wistful and lovely, as is that of Mémoire des Ailes. The chorus of Looking for Love is tremendous. On La Clairefontaine – another beautiful tune – his vocal leaps thrillingly into a falsetto.

But the album is peppered with tracks that feel formless and sketchy: Tu Sais Ce Qui’il Me Faut, with its booming 80s drums and chattering voices, feels as if it’s rambling long before it comes to its conclusion; Les Étoiles limps along on an ungainly beat. There’s often a slightly irksome sense of decent musical ideas that haven’t been fully fleshed out. The rhythm track of Combien de Temps has an appealingly slinky motion to it, but that’s not enough to maintain the listener’s interest for the best part of nine minutes. Le Chanson du Chevalier sounds fabulous – a heady swirl of multi-tracked vocals – but it’s melodically too vaporous to get a grasp on. It’s hard to work out whether a certain bullish rejection of commerciality is in play, or whether the sheer speed at which the album was made is to blame.

Related: ‘I’m changing and I don’t think society helps at all’: Christine and the Queens’ journey to becoming Redcar

Primarily in French, the lyrics tend to the abstract, which is compounded for anglophone listeners by the occasional sense of something lost in translation: there’s a bit of Gainsbourg-ish wordplay (very Gainsbourg-ish in the case of Combien de Temps’ line involving the word “coque” and its homonyms) that is hard to render into English. But these largely seem to be breakup songs, with the protagonist very much the injured party. There is something particularly disconsolate about Ma Bien Aimée Byebye’s repeated refrain of “Elle m’a aimée” – “She liked me” or perhaps “She loved me”.

After a while, you start to wonder whether its dejected lyrical tone might not have as much of a bearing on Redcar les Adorable Etoiles’ shortcomings as time constraints or bloody-mindedness; perhaps it’s the work of someone so lost in a fog of their own personal misery that they are struggling to communicate. For whatever reason, it only fitfully connects with the listener. When it does, it reminds you how hugely talented an artist Redcar can be: flashes of inspiration that ultimately lead to frustration.

This week Alexis listened to

Montell Fish – Hotel
From the New York-based artist’s gleefully uncategorisable album Her Love Still Haunts Me Like a Ghost, a burst of grinding guitar noise and gorgeous vocals.