All most of us ever want out of our pop music is an escape. Life is drab and dull enough for us to crave moments of heightened contrast. People like Brian Wilson, Michael Jackson, and Madonna provided them by giving us places to go, perspectives to consider, and whole worlds to explore outside of our familiar spaces. But what if there is no escape now? What if it’s all familiar places? What if the magical places pop artists used to construct were borne not from imagination but a machine calibrated to our wired, hyper-monetized reality? To use a ham-fisted hypothetical, what if Sgt. Pepper had his own Twitter account?
After decades of technological advancements and myriad refinements to the entertainment industry’s efficiency, we reside in a world highly tolerant to what reliably used to stop us in our tracks. All it takes is a few digital movements to be swallowed by color, sound, and endless dopamine drips. You can exist in a hundred million different places while standing still. What used to pass as leisure from our daily lives has now, thanks to its ceaseless presence, been integrated fully into our scattered lives. Our lives are still as drab and dull as they used to be, but that dullness feels more extreme because we’ve been conditioned to remain wherever we choose to escape.
Magdalena Bay choose to lean into this reality on their debut album, and in the process, they potentially provide a blueprint for a new generation of electronic pop. Like their previous works, Mercurial World integrates a slew of trendy influences, among which include the grandeur of disco, the sensory highs of EDM, the retro aesthetic of vaporwave, and the quixotic melodiousness of video game music. The duo’s Miami background also finds its way inside in unmistakable ways, from their ’80s-electronic synths to the cool shades of sky blue and neon purple that color them. Their prolificness, evidenced not just from the trio of EPs they’ve released since 2019 but from their surreal TikTok and YouTube videos, indicate just how inspired they feel in the musical melange they’ve landed on. Mercurial World is another step in the right direction, adding a cerebral heft (the kind only a full-length collection of songs tends to achieve) to the duo’s winning formula.
Granted, it’s not necessarily their formula. The last decade has seen several artists succeeding at fusing the familiarity of Western pop with the tint of the international, and several show up within the creases of this record. Moments like the enveloping chorus of “Domino” and the off-kilter beats behind “Dreamcatching” easily recall Grimes’ K-pop-inspired Art Angels and the Pixie Stix high she conjures. The cordial sweetness of “The Beginning” shares a sister with Kero Kero Bonito’s bubblegum positivity and the subtle darkness it conceals. There’s Dua Lipa‘s Future Nostalgia in the baroque sweep of strings and piano covering “Hysterical Us” and “Prophecy”. When the duo gets anthemic, as on “You Lose!” and the bombastic end of “Chaeri”, there’s a little bit of M83 that creeps in. And of course, there’s Charli XCX‘s disparate explorations of pop’s hallmarks, specifically Charli’s emotive futurism and how i’m feeling now’s candid take on hyperpop.
About that last part: while there’s little trace of hyperpop‘s trademark abrasiveness here, it does express that genre’s subtext of being disconnected in a world of ceaseless connectivity. In “Secrets (Your Fire)”, singer Mica Tenenbaum grapples with the expectations of sharing yourself online, her nonchalance belying her conflicted words. On “Mercurial World”, she quasi-interpolates Madonna’s “Material Girl” as a melodramatic testament to devotion amid an ever-changing set of circumstances.
“Halfway”, with its incessant bleeps and pillowy synths, is fittingly existential. “Hysterical Us” is steeped in anxious “what-ifs” and circuitous questioning. Meanwhile, Tenenbaum rides in a monstrous vehicle with the words “REALITY BREAK” scrawled on the front in the accompanying music video. Matthew Levin’s compositions pulse placidly behind her throughout, providing a dreamlike counterpoint to her weightier inferences.
Historically, pop hits its greatest heights when it gently approaches profundity. Its primary purpose is to sound pleasant, but the staying power comes from the interplay between that pleasantness and a more profound message about interpersonal (or intrapersonal) dynamics. Levin and Tenenbaum have achieved this before, like in the impending doom underlining “Venice’s” blithe dance party, but not commonly. Bigger hits like “Killshot” and “How to Get Physical” felt content to play it straight, narrowing the focus to just two people sweating on a dance floor.
Though it’s not a universal occurrence, the pair contrastively lean into substantive commentary over this new record. Magdalena Bay chose “Chaeri” as a lead single for a reason; the track might be a slow burn, but the buildup to its explosive finish is exquisite. So is the sense of regret underneath Tenenbaum’s restrained delivery, which briefly surges across her verses and breaks apart into gorgeous harmony on the chorus.
“You Lose!” works as a general kiss-off, but the same flavor of existential dread and anxious dissatisfaction behind songs like “Venice” and “Airplane” amplifies that sentiment into something more immediate and contextually flexible. And on the brilliant “Dawning of the Season”, the pair find the antidote to that anxiety through the freedom of body movement, as Tenenbaum circles around insecurities before landing on a sturdy perch: “Nah, you don’t bother me / I’m like electricity.” This diversification of topic helps make Mercurial World feel like a proper album, one that aspires to augment the potency of its parts through a shared focus.
Perhaps it’s their prog-rock background – the two took part in a short-lived band called Tabula Rosa during their teens – but the two pay close attention to sequencing as well. There’s a clear division between the catchy bops of its A-side and the more atmospheric environment of its B-side. While its seamless bookends and canny “Halfway” point might be a touch gimmicky, what isn’t gimmicky is the effect of that finale. In “The Beginning’s” ABBA-like melody loop and huge festival chants, the duo reinforces the anti-cynical power of their light and sound (“So if you feel low / Sit back, enjoy the show,” Tenenbaum coos accommodatingly).
As the track screws down to a halt and the dream reaches its conclusion, we return to “The End” and its PC Music bounce as Tenenbaum wonders if an end even exists. Though she presents us with one more ride on the merry-go-round, the implication is as mildly nauseating as one of their vaporwave-inspired TikToks. If this world is inescapable, then at what point does the soma wear off? Give credit to the duo, because their debut is so engrossing that such a fate doesn’t seem all that unappealing.