Written by Kevin Thomas.
Los Angeles synthpop duo Magdalena Bay made their mark in 2019 with the release of two EPs, Day/Pop and Night/Pop, that offered a new, futuristic take on pop music. Consisting of vocalist Mica Tenenbaum and producer Matthew Lewin, the band is clearly inspired by modern pop releases such as Grimes’ Art Angels and Charli XCX’s Vroom Vroom in their eclectic yet anthemic nature.
The duo has since followed it up with two mixtapes and another EP, each reaching the same highs as their debut efforts. However, in 2021, they have released their first full-length album: Mercurial World. Consisting of 14 lush, self-produced tracks, the duo embarks on a journey into a psychedelic world of computerised goodness that aims to take you through their “creative, insular universe”.
The opening track, ‘The End’, begins with Tenenbaum’s gentle whispers—“Matt, Matt”—and an elated cry of “wake up!”, before exploding into a playful dance tune reminiscent of that from Kero Kero Bonito’s Bonito Generation. Tenenbaum questions the purpose of existence with if “everything comes from and goes to the same place: nowhere”, juxtaposing the upbeat production of the song.
Up next is the title track, ‘Mercurial World’, aptly living up to its name with the surreal synth arpeggios paired with Tenenbaum’s impassioned romanticism conflicting the nihilism of the previous track. It culminates in a vibrant climax drenched in wonderful rhythms and the echoes of sensual vocals that are quite simply a pleasure to listen to.
Following this comes ‘Dawning of the Season’ which despite being your conventional dance-pop number, is nonetheless above its contemporaries with the immaculate production and charm more than making up for the lack of sonic exploration.
‘Secrets (Your Fire)’ knows exactly what the listener wants with its blend of funk and nu-disco influences, making it one of the most memorable pop tunes of the year. The G-funk inspired synths and uplifting strings alongside the melodic “la la la la la” make it near-impossible to not bop your head. Here, the duo airs their anxiety in needing to share details of their lives to fans that they’d much rather keep secret. They examine the modern phenomenon in which people use social networks under the guise of self-expression but are instead forced to appeal to the masses. Magdalena Bay comments how sometimes people need escapism—their own Mercurial World.
‘You Lose!’ is a noisy, grungy track—my favourite from the album—describing an apparent breakup and Tenenbaum’s consequent heartbreak. The pulsating guitars and 8-bit chiptune effects add a retro flare, as Tenenbaum’s euphoric, catchy chorus compares life to a video game—sometimes you win, but sometimes “You aim, you attack, you lose!” This bittersweet realisation is the kind of profound human emotion Magdalena Bay exude throughout the album, especially in tracks including ‘Hysterical Us’ and ‘Prophecy’, where ethereal, seductive vocals add a deeply immersing sense of melancholy and fantasy.
Avoiding dance-pop monotony, ‘Chaeri’ is a mellow track, the smooth synthesized bass and slowly introduced syncopated drums creating a nocturnal, tense atmosphere. As the instrumental builds, Tenenbaum’s soprano vocals intensify to a powerful finale that matches the emotional beats with introspective lyricism.
Similarly, ‘Dreamcatching’ is a bubbly, minimalistic melody, with house influences as if taken from a Disclosure album. Tenenbaum’s mesmerising vocals transcend the instrumentation, providing an acutely sensitive narrative of a lover longing to be with their partner forever, despite whatever may happen.
The album closer, ironically titled ‘The Beginning’, is a silky, techno-cinematic masterpiece, coming full circle with the overall theme of not letting the lows of life bring you down. Tenenbaum encourages the listener to “go back to the beginning and find that everybody needs a little help”—no false world could change that. Even though the listener may want to remain in this fairy tale acid dream, she urges us to “enjoy the show” of real life, finally allows Matt to “go back to sleep” before a synth solo bridge climaxes into the chorus one last time. It is interesting how the outro mutters “Matt, Matt” again and flows seamlessly to ‘The End’. This, alongside the smooth transitions between tracks, suggests that no matter where you start, Mercurial World is always available as reverie from harsh realities.
When people say pop music is boring or uninspired, they clearly haven’t heard Mercurial World. Meticulously handcrafted from front to back, the versatility of styles and poignant themes put on display here is truly engaging. While Magdalena Bay has not revolutionized pop music by any means, they certainly understand the genre perfectly and execute it remarkably well.
Listen to Mercurial World on Spotify here.