Album Review: Magdalena Bay – Mercurial World

[Luminelle; 2021]

Pop music has a prescription for Prozac. You can see the depression everywhere, from Billie Eilish and Clairo’s introverted sophomore efforts, two albums about trying to escape the constant spotlight of fame, to Taylor Swift’s twin indie folk records last year, which departed from the cotton candy puff pop of Lover. Real pop stars have no interest in the big flashy dance tunes that dominated the radio a decade ago.

So, if you’re a pop fan looking for something energetic, something bright, something fun, you have to turn to indie. Magdalena Bay are one of many alt-pop groups pulling from the late 90s and early 2000s, and although it’s hard to argue that they are really doing anything all that different from peers such as Kim Petras and Slayyter, the duo is good where it counts: immaculately produced and well written. Singer and writer Mica Tenenbaum has pouty, breathy voice perfect for these songs; she doesn’t rise above a sly and knowing simmer, while producer Matthew Lewin never has a guitar line or a keyboard out of place. Their new album, Mercurial World, is a careful collection of pop tracks that threaten, but never quite, reach a boil. 

Mercurial World was led by a series of near perfect singles. First there was “Chaeri”, a progressive house track that picks up steam as it runs along, building to a club-worthy climax of synth arpeggios, the ominous chorus lines “you’re killing me, it’s only that bad, if you tell yourself that you’ll never get out of bed” gaining heavy meaning. Next was “Secrets (Your Fire)” a G-funk inspired track that sounds like about 10 Spice Girls songs at once — an excellent thing. After that came a noise pop song in which every line is a hook, the frustrations of living in the 21st century cleverly portrayed in “You Lose”. And then “Hysterical Us”, a bubbly ballad that mines a very specific vein of Y2K sophisti-pop a la Britney Spears’ “Lucky”. Each of these songs came with a fully imagined conceptual video, replete with Pokémon characters and Windows 97 backgrounds. The strength of their hooks belie their low energy, mid-tempo BPM.

The deeper cuts shine almost as bright as the singles, and more importantly, they further the aesthetics of the record, which build upon a decade’s worth of underground electropop. The scratchy guitars in “Domino” recall Sky Ferreira’s Night Time, My Time, another idiosyncratic pop debut, and one that feels far more auspicious to the direction of indie-leaning pop music than it did when it came out. There’s a clear through-line from the blown out, Ashlee Simpson aping “Boys” to “The Beginning.” Similarly, “Dreamcatching” recalls an artist the duo shares a lot with: Grimes, whose reckless genre mashing on Art Angels set a template artists are just beginning to employ. What both share is not just an affection for a certain era of pop music, but also a relentless dedication to detail.

Throughout the arrangements of these songs, Tenenbaum and Lewin leave small details like breadcrumbs for loyal listeners to follow. “Prophecy”, for example, is full of ringtones that burst out of the string laden melodrama after every line. Blink and you’ll miss these moments, placed so perfectly in the mix so as not to distract but instead enhance the experience of listening to this song for the 10th or 100th time.

Sometimes though, that tasteful perfection is holding Mercurial World back from being full of true bangers. That simmering tension that Tenenbaum captures so well in her vocals? Well it begs for release. That’s what the best pop music gives us: release. Sure, it makes you corny, but it’s also what makes you sincere. Much of the high concept alt-pop from the last decade has hidden itself behind facade, whether that’s a fictional singer selling soda (GFOTY) or a piss and shit covered braggadocio (Kirin J. Callinan). But the best high concept alt-pop from the last decade is high camp, deeply embarrassing, over the top nonsense that also goes hard as hell. That’s “Moth To A Flame”. That’s “Run Away With Me”. That’s “Track 10”. Their too-much-ness is their power. Magdalena Bay seem a little afraid of putting themselves out there like that, suiting their music more for a bedroom dance party than a club night out. Sure, rosé nights with your friends need soundtracks too, but it’s hard not to wish for something a little more alive.