Magdalena Bay Surf Beyond the Internet on 'Mercurial World'
Published Oct 07, 2021In the winter of 1984, Madonna declared herself a "Material Girl." She lived, unapologetic and decked in diamonds, in a "material world." Four decades later — and over a piece of home-recorded production so lush and dewy that Madonna and her collaborators at the time could scarcely dream of it — Mica Tenenbaum offers an update; "We're spinning around/ So let it rain down/ Living in a mercurial world."
Traditional material has little place in the realm of Magdalena Bay, crafted with tongue-in-cheek glee by Tenenbaum and producer/multi-instrumentalist Matthew Lewin. The duo's extended universe spans TikTok, Twitch, YouTube, Discord, Reddit, Twitter and beyond; there are few corners of the internet they haven't touched, and vice versa. Their music is inextricable from its digital incubator — it exists inside a laptop screen's 15-inch expanse of forever, the sound of blue light.
The shtick isn't necessarily novel — 'deeply online DIY pop auteur' is essentially a genre of its own at this point, and Lil Nas X is currently taking over the world using a similar mould — but Magdalena Bay set themselves apart with the startling richness of their music. Mercurial World rejects the ironic chintz and hyper pop-lite aggression of so many of their web-obsessed DIY contemporaries, cultivating a grounding opulence instead. Massive drums, glittering synths and dense strings land like jewels scattered across a velvet bedspread.
The duo aren't a throwback act, and they're not eternity-bound innovators like SOPHIE, whose own Immaterial World represents the sonic and ideological inverse of Madonna's ode to the tangible. Instead, they play in the vast gulf of neon between those two poles, incorporating funk guitar, bouncing disco piano, and every texture and tone of synth imaginable into an omnivorous take on pop music fundamentals.
Their previous endeavour as a prog-rock outfit is felt in the psychedelic sweep of Mercurial World, the way it seems to move in waves, songs bleeding into one another — they've crafted an album, one that climbs in peaks and valleys without ever really slowing down.
The highlights are plentiful, though generally funnelled into the record's fantastic middle stretch, starting with the starched funk of "Secrets (Your Fire)," and running all the way through the pounding pop-rock bruise of "You Lose!," the menacing, transformative "Something For 2," the sparkling recoil-piano of "Hysterical Us," and serpentine first single "Chaeri."
The six-song sprint, which includes the brief, tick-tocking "Halfway," is Magdalena Bay at their best, a suite of diverse, electrifying songs that chew up four decades' worth of pop spectacle and spit it out in flamboyant, sticky new shapes. Unfortunately, this peak is bookended by some of the record's more faceless songs.
At its most fundamental, good pop music is a scientific effort. It's about base elements, the building blocks of life and electric impulses. The best pop songs split atoms and cut straight to the feeling — Mercurial World stumbles when its ideas get too big and its words too indirect, flattening the endorphin rush of pure sensation that drives its better songs. "Dawning of the Season," "Prophecy" and, to a lesser degree, the title track, all suffer from a case of broad, placeholder lyricism — "They say I'm dancing with my demons"; "Will you be my prophecy?" — that hint at apocalyptic feeling without digging to the heart of it. The record has big, cosmic questions about time and space and possibility swirling 'round its bejewelled head, but it's at its best when putting these concepts under a microscope. The vulnerable self-interrogation of "Something for 2" or the ode to a troubled friend on "Chaeri" help focus ideas of time-travel and transformation into something painful and true.
"The Beginning" closes the record with Tenenbaum whispering "Matt, Matt" as her voice dissolves into echo. It's an infinite loop, caught up again in the opening seconds of "The End," where she continues her call, whispering Lewin's name before shouting, gleefully, "wake up!"
There's something endearing about the intimacy of the exchange, Tenenbaum prodding Lewin into wakefulness with her theory — "I was thinking about how there's no true end to anything / Everything comes from and goes to the same place: Nowhere!" — and kickstarting the record's great tides of sound. It's like a peek into their process, and a reminder that for all the star-gazing majesty of the record, it's a two-person affair — a big album from small places, one that revels in the protean nature of the internet and sees the possibilities for reinvention that still exist there. Listen to Mercurial World and squint hard at your black computer screen — it might just start to look like the night sky. (Luminelle)