I have to confess, I’m not much of a linguist. My French doesn’t extend much further than three words (chien, voiture and maison) and my German, which I studied (without any great success) at school, has never been any better than passable.
The history of ‘foreign language’ recordings in British popular music is a strange one. Unless you were a fan of Ritchie Valens’ ‘La Bamba’ or The Singing Nun’s ‘Dominique’ then most of the foreign language hits in the UK charts in the 50s and 60s were ‘foreign language’ bangers given an English language makeover, from Tony’s ‘The Good Life’ to Scott’s ‘If You Go Away’, from Dusty’s ‘You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me’ to Mary’s ‘Those Were The Days’.
By the time we reached the 1970s the few non-English tunes in the UK charts were annoying novelty tracks like ‘Una Paloma Blanca’. As the ‘70s drew to a close, however, things started to change. With the forerunner of a (let’s be brutally frank here) flukey mid-decade hit with ‘Autobahn’, Kraftwerk started hitting it out of the park as the decade wore on, then up popped interesting Belgians Telex and Japanese geniuses Yellow Magic Orchestra and suddenly, if you knew where to look, a whole world of popular music started to open up. And while the likes of Kraftwerk maximised their worldwide marketability by re-recording in English, French, Japanese and more, Peter Gabriel returned the favour by releasing his third and fourth solo albums in German. Initially bleak, these two classic albums are rendered darker still by their German make-under.
Christine and the Queens recorded her debut, predominantly in her native French tongue, and unleashed it onto the world in 2014 and then, in a bid to make herself more accessible to a wider audience she re-recorded it in English, dropped a few of the originals, included a few new ones and the rest, like another school subject, is history. Swimming against the tide 'Chaleur Humaine' appealed to purchasers as well as streamers and went on to shift a not unimpressive 1.3 million copies at the last count (an amount known in common music industry parlance as ‘shitloads’.)
For her second long player 'Chris,' Christine has dropped the staggered release approach, but maintained the policy of releasing English and French versions, this time simultaneously. Both versions are stunningly well-produced, sophisticated, musically accomplished and diverse, and will no doubt strengthen her unique and unlikely position of being a simultaneous mainstay across BBC Radios 1, 2 and 6music. Just like 'Choler Humaine', 'Chris' will be everywhere.
The French versions sound more confident, as you would expect, with the catchy ‘5 dollars/’5 dols’ (which I’ve been annoyingly humming in the office all week), the moody ‘Whats her Face’/’Machin-chose’, which has echoes of Daft Punk’s Tron soundtrack as its sparse backing and the Michael Jackson influenced ‘Le G’ (there’s no English version of this one) are amongst the best on offer. Better still, though, if it’s not a contradiction, are the less immediate tracks, the ones that grow and grow, ‘The Walker’/’La Marcheuse’, which, in its English version sounds like one of The 1975’s quiet smoulderers and in its French version somehow doesn’t, but is still massively impressive, and ‘Make Some Sense’/ Les Yeux Mouillés’ which has a sweet spot almost a mile wide.
And there’s a synth riff tucked away on the closing track ‘The Stranger’/ ‘L'étranger (voleur d'eau’ that couldn’t be more mid-‘70s Rick Wakeman if you draped a purple velvet cape across its shoulders and stood it behind three banks of keyboards.
There’s even better news for music lovers and Francophiles alike, because you can stream both versions and buy special double CD and vinyl that include all 11 tracks from the English album and all 12 tracks from the French, allowing you to compare and contrast just like I’ve been doing for the last enjoyable couple of weeks. Then you can choose your own favourite.