Credit: Lissyelle
Music by Kayla Beardslee

Best Albums of 2021: Magdalena Bay | Mercurial World

January 8, 2022

#14. Duo Magdalena Bay make pop music that is in love with being pop music. Although their songs burst with playfulness and a desire to center the unexpected, the overwhelming impression their tracks leave you with is one of care — care to polish their songs until they sparkle, care to tie their work together with cohesive sounds and themes, and care to express the best version of their artistic vision possible. Listening through their debut album Mercurial World is a breathless ride through the greatest potential that synthpop has to offer.

Mercurial World is themed around the idea of beginnings, endings, and the ways that they circle back on each other. Intro track “The End” (as opposed to ending track “The Beginning”) opens with songwriter and vocalist Mica Tenenbaum musing, “I was thinking about how there’s no true end to anything!” Songs accelerate, decelerate, and transition into each other like they’re playing out stages in a life cycle, and the theme of endings hangs over the entire record in a strange cocktail of ominous optimism.

Unexpected contrasts also play out in the album’s lyrical content. Tenenbaum’s writing often frames traditional ideas of romance in uncanny ways (“Hysterical us / sucking in oxygen / how did we learn to breathe?,” “Time with you stretches into the horizon… / Breaks in two, let it bend”), but at the same time, her delicate vocals turn apocalyptic imagery into something sugary sweet. “Chaeri,” a song where the narrator confronts regret over how they handled things with a depressed friend, sounds surprisingly soft and heartfelt, even as producer Matthew Lewin’s arrangement builds up into a musical self-destruct sequence. “Dreamcatching” and “Prophecy” tackle ideas of love as infinity and inevitability, even as the music intensifies and changes in unpredictable ways. And, of course, every ending that appears is also framed as a beginning — the last track even transitions seamlessly into the first one. Although these nuances might feel confusing in a different context, within the sonically and conceptually rich landscape of this album, they’re just another thoughtful addition to a fascinating project.

Thematic complications aside, Mercurial World could never work if its production was shoddy. However, Lewin has turned in a slate of incredible pop tunes packed with energy, creativity, and technical mastery. “Secrets (Your Fire)” bounces between layers and layers of playfully synthesized sounds (shimmers, sirens, saxophone, strings, chiptunes, piano — it’s a pop cornucopia), and yet its mix is still wonderfully crisp. “You Lose!” is an explosive, grungy take on hyperpop; “The Beginning” mixes a dancey beat with twinkly piano; the title track swirls into a vortex of contrasting synth textures. Sometimes the production is dreamy and ethereal, sometimes it’s precise and cutting, and often it’s both at once. Magdalena Bay are a small indie duo, but they’re putting out some of the most sophisticated, fun, and imaginative songs in the world of pop music today, and Mercurial World is a massive level up for their already excellent discography. Fittingly, it also feels like just the beginning.