Few contemporary pop singers render desire so expressively as Carly Rae Jepsen and Charli XCX. There's an elasticity to their syllables, a whoosh and snap to how they form words behind the microphone. For Charli, desire manifests in a guttural zone as she striates vowels from her diaphragm, like in the punctuative "no no no no" on "Boys." For Carly, wanting sounds breathier, a sliver of a sigh haloing the end of a word. That the two would eventually collaborate seemed inevitable. After all, they've both worked with PC Music producers — Carly with Danny L. Harle and Charli with A.G. Cook, as well as PC Music associate Sophie — and they both share an ecstatic ethos about the potentialities of pop music in its purest form.
Their new song together, "Backseat," marks a turn for both of them. The first track off of Charli's new Pop 2 mixtape, "Backseat" isn't the rapturous automotive makeout anthem its title might suggest at a glance. Sure, there's kissing (in Carly's verse, naturally), but it's the hesitant, ambivalent kind. Rather than singing from the blush of a new flame, Carly and Charli are stuck in stagnant relationships. Eighteen months in, and they're starting to wonder if going solo might be a better use of their time than sticking around with their partners. "Year and a half, are we in love? / I'll never know / All that went wrong, what a mistake," Charli sings through sheets of Auto-Tune. It's like she's trying to sing her way out of a monogamous chokehold into the freedom of being alone.
But she's not alone, even as she insists on the word at the track's unhinged finish. Though the masculine pronoun in Carly's verse suggests the two singers aren't addressing each other within the fiction of the song, "Backseat" nests their voices together while they repeat the phrase "all alone." Two women trading off a breakup song about an unheard, unnamed third party opens up wide channels for potential meaning (like Carly's deliriously vague "Boy Problems" does). They could be commiserating about parallel misfortunes; they could be two points in the same love triangle. It's a strange use of a duet, and an even stranger place to put the word "alone," paradoxical in the fact that there are two voices singing it. But both artists seem to thrive in paradox. "E·MO·TION," the title track from Carly's most recent LP, shivers like a crush song even as Carly sings about a love that's dead in the water. And Charli's recent single "Boys" envelops not the reality but merely the dream of its subject.
Often pop music invites its listener to pin its lyrics down on the material: a real-life celebrity breakup, say, or at least a generalized scenario that lends itself to tangible interpretation. Across their solo work, Charli and Carly interest themselves more in what slips through the cracks of the real, in desires never expressed and resentments never enacted. On "Backseat," they're in perfect harmony: somewhere between the romance and its collapse, between coupling and loneliness, completely alone and entirely together.