Christine and The Queens’ – ‘La Vita Nuova’ review: surprise EP is an astonishing and emotional sucker-punch

Héloïse Letissier has once again injected enormous emotional heft into the vessel of warped, left-field pop. And this one takes on classic literature!

Christine and The Queens’ newest release ‘La Vita Nuova’ borrows its name from a Latin text by Dante Alighieri, which tells the story of his love for a woman named Beatrice and  details the emotional toll of her early death. Christine and The Queens’ reimagining is also a melancholy-tinged love letter, though in her own response she trades the permanence of a lover’s death for the gap left by one who leaves in a sudden blaze and never returns. We find her protagonist grief-stricken – later, she’s desperately defiant.

The track ‘Je disparais dans tes bras’ and ‘I disappear in your arms’, French and English-language interpretations of the same song, act as this release’s book-ends. ‘People, I’ve Been Sad’ meanwhile serves as a kind of scene-setting prologue where all the emotional shutters are flung open to love. On ‘Je disparais dans tes bras’ Chris’ protagonist resigns themselves to heartbreak: “You want the world to stop when you leave,” she sings in French. The closing moments of the record find her determined and resistant instead: “don’t you dare ask of the world to stop just as you leave,” she warns, switching to English. This is all-or-nothing infatuation matched by rich, evocative production.

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‘Mountains (we met)’ combines restless string stutters with a meta nod to music itself: “Do you think there’s only one thing to do?” Christine asks, backed by spare bursts of warm piano,“to write about a song about you now / Could make sense for other people too.” ‘La Vita Nuova’ is charged with chaotic, self-destructive and all-too-temporary euphoria: “Oh, you’re a heartbreaker,” it declares. Adding a fourth language to this EP’s linguistic bow (on ‘Nada’ Chris speaks Spanish), former Chairlift singer Caroline Polachek guests on the title track and sings in Italian. It’s a neat tribute that surely links back to Dante.

Ever since her debut album ‘Chaleur Humaine’, Christine and The Queens has exploited careful shifts in language and meaning. Here she also exploits the tradition of a classic – and heteronormative – courtly love narrative, before twisting it to new ends. Various striking images – a grief-stricken figure staring at the sky, birds plummeting through the air – link directly with frames from Dante’s original ‘La Vita Nuova’.

The video accompanying the track reimagines Chris as a campy Parisian poet on a mission; dapper, but with a scruffy, loosened tie. She journeys down from the lofty rooftops of the French city down to the depths of a lust-fuelled basement – a kind of queered-up answer to Dante’s best-known work Inferno. She’s often accompanied on her travels by a strange, two-horned tour guide; Caroline Polachek later appears in the visual as a Beatrice-type figure.

At this point, you’d really expect nothing less from Christine and The Queens, who has continually proven that she has a gift for injecting emotional heft into the vessel of warped, left-field pop. Conceptually, ‘La Vita Nuova’ is an astonishing feat – but even better than that, it also oozes an intensity of feeling that punches right in the gut.

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