Mica Tenenbaum and Matthew Lewin’s fuzzy, rococo synthpop confections have a magic power: They sound like whatever you grew up with, whenever that was.
Magdalena Bay is a band moonlighting as an extremely online brand. The duo’s website is like a defictionalized Hypnospace Outlaw page: a weirder-than-history recreation of GeoCities. Their TikTok is a whirl of ironic promo, unironic promo, and surreal, post-vaporwave memes filmed in a Rose Quartz and Serenity haze. They have a spooky Space Invaders game; they mailed cryptic brochures to fans. None of this extramusical worldbuilding is new, exactly. An incomplete tour: Taylor Swift’s Tumblrverse, Kanye and Future’s video game (actually, maybe don’t revisit that), Gorillaz’s Shockwave wormholes, that time in the mid-1990s when artists kept making interactive CD-ROMs. But Magdalena Bay commit to the bit.
There are two basic reactions one might have to this level of self-styling. One is to burrow and obsess, relishing the lore and surrendering to the feeling that, as one devotee put it, you’re “now in a cult.” The other is suspicion: seeing style and concluding there can’t be substance. This is the old radio-pop backlash, gussied up for the personal-brand era. It’s also not exactly accurate. The duo behind Magdalena Bay, Mica Tenenbaum and Matthew Lewin, spent a few years in a progressive rock group called Tabula Rasa. When they heard Grimes’ Art Angels, they were surprised to discover intricate arrangements and high-concept storylines that weren’t so far from prog. On their old albums, you might hear a particularly spacey interlude or frenetic guitar line and imagine it recostumed in synth pads and glitter. Alt-pop became a gateway to radio pop; among Magdalena Bay’s many TikTok memes is a skit about how they couldn’t possibly give up Charlie Puth. Judging by the Max Martin-ish strut of some of their singles, they’re not not serious.
For all Magdalena Bay’s scattershot onlineness, Mercurial World is surprisingly old-fashioned. The album’s careful sequencing is full of gentle dissolves and impeccably timed key and tempo changes—refreshing in a genre where the typical M.O. is to spam Spotify and call it an EP. And for all Magdalena Bay’s neo-Y2K moodboarding, their album doesn’t particularly sound like 2000; the Mariah-ish ballad “Prophecy” is the closest they come. Instead, Mercurial World sounds like whatever you grew up with, whenever that was. Their stated influences are current: Grimes’ big concepts and new age haze, Charli XCX’s winking-robot shtick, Caroline Polachek’s MIDI choir vox. Their songs frequently sound like the early ’10s: “Follow the Leader” is like a remix of Beyoncé’s “Party” with the saturation cranked up to max, and the fuzzy synth line threading through the chorus of “You Lose!” is more or less the one from MGMT’s “Kids.” Think of “Secrets” like one of those online quizzes that guesses your age: When the intro slinks in, do you hear “Rock With You”? “Say You’ll Be There”? Something newer, maybe Kaytranada?
Mercurial World is also old-fashioned in its flaws. Like many actual Y2K albums, it sags in the middle. Tenenbaum’s called Fiona Apple her songwriting “north star,” and there are glimmers of this influence in her earlier songs, but on Mercurial World she writes in a more conventional style. That’s not automatically bad; “Chaeri” is one of many strobing synthpop tracks with sad hearts, but its regrets over abandoning a depressed friend feel highly specific. Compared to the rococo production and the quasi-storyline, though, the actual lyrics of Mercurial World often seem like unadorned afterthoughts.
Mercurial World just isn’t that kind of album—nor does it have to be. “The End” (actually track 1; accept it and move on) does the “Material Girl” interpolation that’s basically required with this album title. But Magdalena Bay do it with detail, trailing off like Madonna did with an a cappella fade-out and skating chiptune glissandos back and forth over the arrangement, like a trail of Kid Pix sparkles. The album is full of these little tweaks and stamps and glitches, and they seldom feel gimmicky. “Domino” is Mercurial World at its most thrilling: the best hooks of the album paced like a video game rollercoaster, maximalist glitter rush followed by sinuous soprano descant. It’s genuinely evocative. It’s also, in Magdalena Bay TikTok myth, the siren song of the LOLWUT meme. Both things are true at once, and in its own way, isn’t that beautiful?
Buy: Rough Trade