Magdalena Bay is a group that moonlights as an extremely online brand. The duo’s site is like a defictionnalised Outlaw of hypnosis page: a recreation stranger than the story of GeoCities. Their TikTok is a whirlwind of ironic promo, one-iron promo, and post-vaporwave surreal memes filmed in a Rose Quartz and Serenity haze. They have a scary Space invaders Game; they sent cryptic brochures to fans. None of this construction of the extramusical world is New, exactly. An Incomplete Tour: Taylor Swift’s Tumblrverse, Kanye and Future’s video game (in fact, maybe don’t come back that), Gorillaz’s Shockwave wormholes, that time in the mid-90s where artists continued to make interactive CD-ROMs. But Magdalena Bay immediately commits.
There are two basic reactions one can have at this level of self-styling. One is to dig and obsess, savor the tradition and surrender to the feeling that, as one devotee said, you are “now in a cult.” The other is mistrust: seeing the style and concluding that there can be no substance. It’s the old aftermath of radio-pop, inflated in the era of the personal brand. This is also not exactly correct. The duo behind Magdalena Bay, Mica Tenenbaum and Matthew Lewin, spent a few years in a progressive rock band called Tabula Rasa. When they heard Grimes Angels of art, they were surprised to discover complex arrangements and high level storylines that weren’t that far from prog. On their old albums, you might hear a particularly soaring interlude or a frenzied guitar line and imagine it revamped in synth pads and glitter. Alt-pop has become a gateway to pop radio; Among Magdalena Bay’s many TikTok memes, there’s a skit about how they couldn’t ditch Charlie Puth. Judging by the Max Martin strut of some of their singles, they’re not not serious.
For all the online scattershot of Magdalena Bay, Mercurial World is surprisingly old-fashioned. The album’s painstaking sequencing is full of smooth fades and impeccably synchronized key and tempo changes, refreshing in a genre where the typical MO is to spam Spotify and call it an EP. And for all of Magdalena Bay’s New Year 2000 moodboards, their album doesn’t sound particularly like 2000; the Mariah-ish “Prophecy” ballad is closest to them. Instead of, Mercurial World sounds like anything you grew up with no matter what it was. Their declared influences are current: the great concepts and the new age haze of Grimes, the shtick of the flashing robot of Charli XCX, the MIDI vox choir of Caroline Polachek. Their songs often sound like the early ’10s: “Follow the Leader” is like a remix of Beyoncé’s “Party” with full saturation and the fuzzy synth line running through the chorus of “You Lose! Is more or less that of MGMT’s “Kids”. Think of “Secrets” as one of those online quizzes that guess your age: When the intro slips 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 real Y2K albums, it sags in the middle. Tenenbaum called Fiona Apple her songwriting “North Star”, and there are glimmers of that influence in her previous songs, but on Mercurial World she writes in a more conventional style. It is not automatically bad; “Chaeri” is one of many heartbroken strobe synthpop tracks, but her regrets for leaving a depressed friend are very specific. Compared to the rococo production and near-script, however, the actual lyrics of Mercurial World often seem like unadorned ulterior motives.
Mercurial World it’s just not that kind of album, and it doesn’t have to be. “The End” (actually track 1; accept it and continue) does the “Material Girl” tween that is essentially required with this album title. But Magdalena Bay does it in detail, stopping like Madonna did with an a cappella fade and skating chiptune glissandos back and forth across the arrangement, like a Kid Pix streak sparkles. The album is full of these little tweaks, buffers, and glitches, and they rarely feel fancy. “Dominos” is Mercurial World at its most exciting: the album’s best hooks beat like a video game roller coaster, a maximalist glitter rush followed by a meandering soprano descent. It is really evocative. It is also, in the myth of Magdalena Bay TikTok, the siren song of the LOLWUT meme. Both things are true at the same time, and in its own way, isn’t it beautiful?
Buy: Crude Trade
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